Things can’t really return to any kind of normal until schools and daycares are open again. That was the gist of a lengthier comment by Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert during a recent At Issue panel on CBC television. Hébert is right to think opening schools and daycares will be essential to getting the economy going again. Parents will not be able to return to work until their children can return to school or daycare.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo echoed Hébert’s reasoning as he reflected on President Trump’s plan to open American businesses in May. “I don’t understand how you’d start businesses in May without opening schools…because schools do education and schools also do daycare for a large percentage of the New York population.”
If businesses were to reopen in summer, we would also need to open all the programs at art galleries, museums, camps, on university campuses, in community centres, schools and churches that care for children during the holidays.
The latest statistics about employed parents I could find were for 2014. At that point, 70% of households in Canada with children under the age of sixteen reported both parents were wage earners outside the home. I suspect that percentage is even higher now. Those employed parents make up a substantial part of the Canadian workforce and if they are going to return to their places of employment their children will have to be supervised or cared for.
Last week the Quebec premier Francois Legault, recognizing the importance of reopening schools and daycares, suggested he would let that start happening in May. He reasoned that children, who seem to be one segment of the population that rarely gets seriously ill from the coronavirus, could help to spread immunity in the community.
According to the National Post the premier’s suggestion was met with concern by parents, teachers, school administrators and daycare operators. While most children may not be impacted negatively by the virus, what about teachers, cleaning staff, school secretaries, daycare workers and others who may be over sixty or have autoimmune diseases? Some children live with grandparents or have relatives with compromised immune systems. They could bring the disease home to them. And what about the children of frontline workers who could contract the virus at school, and give it to their parents, who would, in turn, give it to their clients and customers and patients?
Chantal Hébert made another good point during the panel discussion that illustrates just how difficult it may be to open schools and daycares. “We all know there is one place where a two-meter distance will be almost impossible to maintain and that’s a classroom.”
Schools and daycares simply aren’t set up to allow for social distancing and children’s natural tendency is to touch others. According to Dr David Givens of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, touch was already vital to our primate ancestors 60 million years ago. We’re not going to get kids to instantly change that innate instinct.
One can only hope the current crisis makes us all more mindful of the vital role schools and daycares play in our society and that in the future this may lead to a nationally-funded daycare program in Canada and measures to ensure schools have all the resources they require to adequately address the needs of the children they serve.
The dictionary says a bellwether is an indicator of how a situation has changed or is about to change. I think the reopening of schools and daycares will be a bellwether for our society getting back to normal.