Is it safe to go back to school? How to prepare your own risk assessment

Is it safe to go back to school? Those of us in Ontario heard and read about the provincial government's plan for back to school when it was announced a couple of weeks ago. Since then, we have been waiting for the public school boards to release their school reopening plans. Hamilton and Wentworth District school board, the board for the district our family lives in, shared their plan on August 11th, 2020.

To help you decide if its safe for your kids to go back to school, I've outlined below the risk assessment process I've gone through for my teens, who will start Grade 9 in September.

I'm sharing my process in the hope that it may help other parents who are unsure how to decide whether it's safe to send their kids back to school.

I'm not a doctor, epidemiologist, teacher or statistician. I'm simply sharing information and the thought process I've gone through as a parent.

Your personal risk assessment is personal

Every parent needs to do their own risk assessment. Even if you live in the same school district, or even the same street, the personal profile of each of your children and each of the members of your home is different.

Flexibility and contingency planning

Some folks don't have the luxury of choice when it comes to sending their kids back to school. If you're a teacher, essential services worker, single parent, on a low income - there are so many circumstances in which school isn't really "optional".

A note of caution for all of us though. Our risk assessments are not something we are going to be doing once - they will be ongoing. As we've seen in 2020 so far, circumstances can change extremely rapidly. There will be community outbreaks. What if a teacher at your child's school tests positive for COVID-19? What if your child gets a cold and has to stay home? We all need to make sure we have contingency plans in place.

The only certainty we have is that things will change.

What's the current risk of transmission where you live?

In Ontario, we are lucky enough to have Ryan Imgrund sharing information on Twitter. Mr. Imgrund is a high school teacher (head of the science department) and a biostatistician working for a regional health centre. He produces daily, very useful information on COVID-19. The images below are from him and are dated August 20th, 2020. Try, if you can, to find similar, up to date information where you live.

Ontario School Reopening plan 2020. COVID19 transmission data for kids in cohorts provided by Ryan Imgrund 

The first table indicates that if my children were attending school in Hamilton, in a cohort of 15 students, the risk of one of those students or a teacher transmitting COVID-19 would be 0.5%.

For me, that's an acceptable level of risk (subject to the other sections of the risk assessment outlined below).

Ontario School Reopening plan 2020. COVID19 transmission data for larger groups provided by Ryan Imgrund 

Looking at the table above for comparison, if my kids were attending a high school in Hamilton with 1,000 other students and insufficient safety measures in place, the risk of one of those students or a teacher transmitting COVID-19 rockets up to 27.7%.

This leads to the next question in the risk assessment that parents need to ask themselves.

What is my local school board's reopening plan?

Let me outline what I'm interested in seeing in a school board's plan using HWDSB as an example. In the current plan, as outlined on August 11th, 2020:

  • Are students screened for possible COVID-19 symptoms? It reads to me that at-home daily screening is required, but they won't be screening at school.

"(a) an HWDSB document outlining the screening criteria and symptoms that would require a student or staff member to remain at home and/or be required to leave the school along with the necessary steps needed prior to return and (b) an individual responsibility to perform the screening on a daily basis and to take the appropriate actions including a notification process."

  • Are students required to wear masks? Yes, although they are currently excluding kids from JK to Grade 3 which would concern me if my kids were still in elementary school.

"As per the revised Ministry of Education guidelines, students in Grades 4 to 12 will be required to wear masks indoors"

  • What's the process if a child or teacher is suspected of having COVID-19? There is a paragraph on outbreak protocol in the policy but it's extremely vague and unsatisfactory.
"A Communications Strategy related to the Outbreak Protocol will also be developed to ensure families and staff are aware of the process."
  • With respect to "outbreaks", I want to know:
    • how is an "outbreak" defined?
    • if a student or teacher is suspected of having COVID-19, will they have to be tested in order to confirm?
    • what happens exactly when one or more people in the school test positive?
    • are school staff informed if a student tests positive?
    • are parents informed if a teacher or student their child has been in contact with tests positive?
    • what has to happen before the student or teacher can return to school?
    • can kids utilize the COVID Alert app on phones or tablets when they are at school?
  • Where will children be eating lunch? Kids can't eat and wear masks at the same time, so will plexiglas barriers be used? Will they eat outside (weather permitting)? What's the plan?
  • Exactly what will remote learning look like?

I have emailed both the school board ( and my trustee regarding the above. I also listened to an Instagram Live with my trustee and local councillor on August 18th, 2020. I appreciate them taking the time but unfortunately no additional information relating to the above was forthcoming.

How will your children get to school?

Both of my sons have been identified as exceptional and therefore qualify for additional accommodations and supports by virtue of their disabilities. For a variety of reasons I won't get into here, the Identification, Placement and Review Committee recommendation for one of my sons was to attend a different high school than his home school. I was not at all happy with this plan but, because at that point we had no idea how school would look in September, I provisionally accepted the placement. At any time I can request that he attend his home school instead (my preference).

In order for him to attend this other school, he would need to take a school bus. I am not at all comfortable with him using school transport at this time, so this is an additional point in favour of him attending his home school with his brother.

How are your children feeling about school?

It's impossible for children to learn in an environment where they don't feel safe. My partner and I sat down with Oliver and Owen last Friday to discuss back to school. We chatted about the following:

  • There is a lot we still simply do not know, but as we get information we will share it with them
  • How do they feel about wearing masks at school? (They seem ok with it)
  • Do they prefer to learn from home or do they miss being able to see their classmates and teachers and learn at school? (They seemed to like the idea of being able to go to school for a couple of days and learn from home on the days they weren't at school. I need to find out if "remote learning" in this instance is going to be synchronous learning, because that didn't work well here at all)
  • They will have to frequently wash their hands and use hand sanitizer. They were ok with that, especially if they get to use the hand sanitizer we use at home.
  • We talked about how school will look very different from what they are used to and that things may change a lot. As change can be a challenge to manage for both Oliver and Owen, we reassured them that we would support them as much as possible.

Remember that for some children, like those who deal with anxiety, learning from home has been a positive experience and the idea of going back to school in the current circumstances exacerbates their stress and anxiety.

If you are unsure how to talk to your kids about back to school, I found this video from my Facebook friend Keith (who is a school counsellor) really helpful, especially if your kids are tweens or teens:

How do you feel about your children going to school or learning from home?

Your own mental health is something you absolutely need to take into consideration when going through your risk assessment. When I polled parents on twitter about what they feared most if their kids learned from home, it was not getting any respite.

Ontario School Reopening Plan September 2020 - Twitter poll

If the results of your personal risk assessment are that your kids will learn remotely, make sure you plan for ways to get the breaks you most definitely need.

What's the personal health profile of each person in your household?

If anyone in your household is immuno-compromised or at greater risk of complications from COVID-19, then this dramatically impacts your risk assessment. What does this mean exactly?

  • Here's some guidelines from the Canadian federal government and from the CDC.
  • I am diabetic, so I'm on the list of people who are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19
  • My partner has asthma so he's on the list of people who might be at increased risk of severe illness

How this impacts my personal risk assessment? If my children were still in elementary school, attending school daily, in full-sized classes, with younger children who are less likely to follow safety protocols and those in Grades JK to 3 unmasked - I would be very concerned about sending my children to school.

As my teens are starting high school and will be in a small, masked, physically distant cohort, not attending school daily, the risk of sending them to see how it goes is less worrisome, but I still want to know the Board's process for dealing with suspected cases before making a final decision.

Remember: don't let perfection be the enemy of the good

Whether you decide to send your children to school or opt for remote learning, try not to be too hard on yourself.

  • If you're a parent or teacher or both, don't worry so much that it ends up sapping all the joy out of learning. There will be slip-ups - kids will fidget and touch each other and masks will fall off - but this is why multiple safety protocols are in place. Layering together screening, hand washing, mask use, physical distancing, etc - all mitigates risk.
  • If your kids are learning from home, plan for respite breaks and try not to worry about everyone falling behind. Be realistic. Remember that multi-tasking doesn't work - if your children have your full attention for an hour or two a day that likely results in them learning more than if they were to spend several hours at school in a classroom setting.

I hope you found this useful and please do comment below if you want to add any other things you feel it's important to consider.

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