The idea of balancing risks and rewards has been on my mind constantly since New Year’s Eve. That’s when the government of New Brunswick announced that public school students would be learning online for at least the first two weeks of the winter term. I was in British Columbia at the time, where the approach was a bit different: the re-opening of schools was delayed for a week to allow teachers and school leaders to adjust the timetables and physical spaces to limit contact between and within class groups.
Of course the physical health of our staff and students is a priority, but so is their mental health and students’ learning. How do we weigh the risks of staff and students coming to school compared to the rewards of in-person learning? One approach to maximizing the rewards relative to the risks, is to mitigate the risks as much as possible.
There are already a number of features of our school that helped to mitigate the risks:
- Our community is small, so the risk of exposure is much smaller than it would be in a typical school. Likewise, with a small class size, students spend most of their time with a small, consistent group of peers.
- We provide before- and after-school care, so students do not have to go to other care providers. This limits the number of different people with whom our students come into contact.
- We have plenty of physical space for students to spread out.
- We have a vaccination policy in place, ensuring that all staff are fully vaccinated, and that students will be vaccinated as they become eligible, unless medically contraindicated.
- We are in regular communication with families so that they have the most up-to-date information about the precautions that we are taking, as well as the guidelines about monitoring for symptoms, using rapid tests and isolating.
- Staff and students wear masks unless they are eating or drinking.
As New Brunswick moved into Level 2 and then Level 3 of the COVID winter plan, we added a few additional precautions to further mitigate the risks:
- We installed HEPA filters in all of our classrooms.
- We modified our physical education activities to limit high-intensity exercise while indoors and to limit the sharing of equipment.
- We implemented a seating plan and assigned materials to each student to limit the number of people touching classroom surfaces.
- Visitors, including parents, are not permitted in the school unless essential. All maintenance and janitorial work is done on evenings and weekends when staff and students are out of the building.
While we remain cautious and vigilant, our steps to mitigate the risks of in-person learning seem to be working. We have not had any cases in our community since we re-opened after winter break two weeks ago. Moreover, the rewards of in-person learning are particularly amplified at this time. With students’ extra-curricular activities canceled and limits on social gatherings, having some time with their peers is of particular value to students at this time. We are so grateful to be small and flexible enough that we can accommodate in-person learning and help students maintain a bit of their normal routine in these turbulent times.