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Can Canada’s Schools Reopen Safely?

2020-08-21 20:35:24

For many families, back-to-school season can be a fraught time. But this year, the pandemic may take that tension to a whole new height.

Among Canadian educators, public health officials and parents who learned during lockdown that they aren’t substitute teachers, there is a consensus that students should return. But all of the provinces are proposing varying approaches to ensure safety. Furthermore, within most provinces, many school boards have their own ideas. And the plans in many places are still works-in-progress, leaving parents unsure of what to expect.

For a peek at what lies ahead, I spoke with education researchers this week. Their broad conclusion: balancing education and infection controls is likely to require constant adjustments.

“It’s a fantasy to think this is going to go smoothly,” said Joel Westheimer, a professor of education at the University of Ottawa. “All in all, I think that there are compelling reasons for kids to go back. But it needs to be done in the right way.”

Jason Ellis, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia, said everyone in education has been focused on the return since March. The ever shifting and incomplete plans, he said, are the result of a lack of ideal options.

“You can’t space out the kids dramatically in schools because you would need to hire thousands of teachers, and they don’t exist,” Professor Ellis said. “You also would need much different school buildings than you have. So they’re betting on low community transmission. If it remains low, as it is in most parts of Canada, then there shouldn’t be too many cases in the schools. We’ll see.”

Professor Westheimer said parents should brace themselves for a cycle of closings and reopenings until class size reduction becomes possible. And among the provinces, he said Ontario’s preparation is one of the most wanting.

“Ontario has been a standout in providing almost no resources to get this done,” he said.

Both professors agree that teachers face a significant challenge.

“It’s an enormous burden on them,” Professor Ellis said. “In provinces where high schools are doing a blend of online and face-to-face, the preparation will be just a nightmare.”

Professor Westheimer, however, did have some encouraging news about one frequently raised concern.

“From the very beginning, people were kind of obsessed with whether kids are going to fall behind or if they could catch up to their peers,” he said. “Stop worrying. This is an unprecedented disaster and it’s worldwide. Who are they falling behind? Everyone’s out of school.”

The Times is making education during the pandemic a special focus of its reporting. That effort includes a new newsletter on education and the coronavirus for which you can sign up here.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be contributing from Canada to that effort. So if you have any particular concerns and observations about the return to school or if there’s something you think is going particularly well in your province or community, please drop me an email. I may use some of your comments in a future Canada Letter as well, so please include your full name and where you live.

A few weeks ago, the Canada Letter spoke with Paul Fairie, a researcher at the University of Calgary who, improbably, revived that city’s interest in Cronk. (Those of you who missed the newsletter about the long-forgotten 19th-century beverage, and its cryptic approach to advertising, can catch up here.)

Using a somewhat imprecise, industrial scale Cronk recipe, the Cold Garden Beverage Company in Calgary brewed a batch. Two batches to be precise. The first one, made with blackstrap rather than fancy-grade molasses, proved undrinkable.

After requests from several of you, I called Dr. Fairie this week, the day after he knocked back his first glass of Cronk.

“It’s amazing to drink it,” Dr. Fairie said. Over all, Dr. he said, Cronk has an herbal or spice flavor with noticeable flavors of molasses, tea and root beer “but not the kind of root beer you buy today.” He compared its aftertaste to that of prune juice.

In terms of style, he said that Cronk is more like an aperitif than something to be consumed quickly and in large quantity.

Anyone else curious to try Cronk will have to wait — or may be disappointed. Blake Belding, the head brewer at the Cold Garden Beverage Company, told me that 1,500 “stubbie”-style glass bottles sold out in 11 hours. A remaining 200 will be offered for sale online shortly while the brewery debates whether to produce more.

But Dr. Fairie isn’t sure that initial stampede means that Cronk will again rise to its advertising claim of being “The Drink.”

“It’s very old-fashioned,” he said.

Perhaps it was inevitable in this year of disruptions, but Canadian politics did not take its usual summer vacation this week. First, Bill Morneau stepped down as finance minister amid speculation about the reason for his departure.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau replaced with him with Chrystia Freeland, making her Canada’s first female finance minister. Then, to round things out, the prime minister shut down the Parliamentary session.

He explained the move was necessary to reset the government’s agenda as its focus turns to economic recovery. The opposition said that it was to end their hearings into Mr. Trudeau’s role in the WE Charity affair.

During the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, many police forces have been criticized for “kettling,” the practice of encircling demonstrators and passers-by alike before making often violent arrests. This week, the Toronto police force agreed to pay 16.5 million Canadian dollars to people it arrested, in some cases using kettling, during the 2010 G20 meeting.

The Canadian Football League canceled its 2020 season this week after several efforts to play an abbreviated schedule fell apart.

Carol Schram reports from Edmonton on efforts by the N.H.L. to give a home game feel to matches played at its playoff hubs in that city and Toronto.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

We’re eager to have your thoughts about this newsletter and events in Canada in general. Please send them to [email protected].

Forward it to your friends, and let them know they can sign up here.


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