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School reopenings reveal existing inequalities when it comes to COVID-19

With the long, tumultuous first summer of the pandemic coming to an end, back-to-school season will soon begin across the country. So far, the federal government’s guidelines for safe reopening have been relatively broad, and the measures being taken by schools have varied drastically between provinces. Saskatchewan, for example, will not require masks in schools, while high-risk areas of Ontario will require masks for students in grades 4 to 12 and only allow secondary students to attend classes for half the week. 

The differences between provinces make sense given the varying severity of outbreaks across the country, but Canada’s strategy overall has failed to address the threat that the virus presents. By not seeming to take into account the existing risks faced by children and the communities they live in, the plan could potentially jeopardize public health and exacerbate existing inequalities. 

Contrary to some of the misinformation that has appeared online, children and young people are not immune to COVID-19. In Canada, more than 10,000 people aged 19 and under have been diagnosed with the disease, and over 145 have been hospitalized. So far, one young person (their exact age has not been made public) has died. 

As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, systemic racism has had a significant effect on who is impacted by COVID-19 — namely BIPOC and other racialized communities. Now we also know that the same disparities exist among children. A study of 1,000 participants in Washington, DC, found that the rates of infection of Black and Hispanic children were several times higher than those of white children — 30 per cent for Black children, 46.4 per cent for Hispanic children, and only 7.3 per cent for white children. 

Though the number of severe cases seen in Canadian children has been relatively low, it’s also important to remember that those we’ve seen so far have been made manageable by lockdown measures and early school closures. How those numbers may change once schools reopen is unclear, but early data from the United States and other countries has not been encouraging. 

In the U.S. (where some districts began classes in August) there have already been a number of COVID-19 cases in schools, forcing thousands of students and staff to quarantine after potentially being exposed to the virus. The true number of cases is still unknown, mainly because some states are not actually tracking aggregate cases of COVID-19 in their schools, and no national tally of school outbreaks currently exists

Not only are children able to catch the virus, they could also spread it to their families at home and potentially create clusters of transmission. A study based in South Korea found that children between the ages of 10 and 19 were just as likely to transmit the virus as adults. That means that even if the risk of severe illness is low among young people, they could still put the adults in their lives at risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19.

Teachers and other underpaid and underprotected education workers are also made vulnerable by schools reopening — and some are speaking out about their fear and frustration with the government’s current lack of planning. As one Quebec teacher told CTV: “A lot of us are afraid to admit how scared we really are…We’re supposed to put on a brave face and make them [students] feel safe. But in kind of our own moments, when we’re talking amongst ourselves, the truth is, yeah, it’s scary getting out there.”

At the same time, moving entirely to remote learning could have significant negative effects on marginalized students who already experience education inequality. Lower-income families may not be able to afford the technology or internet access necessary to facilitate remote learning, and it could be more difficult for some families to provide a quiet, distraction-free environment due to a lack of space at home. If children are made to attend school online, parents who cannot afford childcare are forced to juggle those responsibilities while also trying to work. 

In some places — mostly wealthy, white enclaves in the U.S. — “learning pods,” which involve families bringing their kids together in small groups for private in-person instruction, have cropped up. But lower-income families and BIPOC have so far been left out of the conversation. 

Economic inequality is already a significant factor when it comes to education inequality in this country. A 2018 UNICEF report found that, in Canada, “parental affluence accounts for about half the disparities in educational achievement in high school.” Evidence shows that children from lower-income families are at a persistent disadvantage when they enter school, whereas children from higher-income families have access to more resources which directly translates into higher educational attainment. 

Income inequality creates a ‘private investment gap’ in childhood, with wealthier and better-educated parents better able to provide resources and environments that support children’s development through the school years,” the report states. “For instance, more food security, safer homes and neighbourhoods, support for children with disabilities and richer opportunities to play and learn in and outside school.” During COVID-19, it’s clear how these inequalities could become even worse, forcing lower-income children and those from marginalized communities to fall increasingly further behind their wealthier peers. 

There’s no easy solution to this problem, with governments trying to balance the health and safety risks of in-school instruction with the education inequalities involved with moving to remote learning. But without addressing fundamental inequalities related to income, race, and immigration status, the disparities in COVID-19 infections will continue and the long-term effects on the health and education of young people could be significant.