Back to School: The Impossible Uninformed Non-Choice

Jill Promoli with one of her children listening to the first episode of the @ risk podcast

Risk is all of our business and we make decisions about it every day but not all risk decisions are created equal. There are some decisions that really bring risk home and set off sirens, particularly when they involve kids. On the @risk podcast, I spoke with four parents about their decision to return their children to in-person learning in public schools during the pandemic.Hear how these parents carried out their risk decision-making responsibilities during a September unlike any other. We explore their policy ideas for what could have made the decision easier and better informed, and consider how to move towards a safer, more equitable and better functioning public education system.

You’ll hear from Jill Promoli, a wedding and lifestyle photographer, a parent of three children and flu shot advocate. She became a flu vaccine advocatefollowing the death of her young son, Jude, from Influenza B causing cardiac arrest. Jill wants to see paid sick days deployed to fight infectious diseases in our schools and workplaces. Lauren Dobson Hughes is a consultant specializing in gender, health and rights and a single parent to her daughter. She’s fed up with government leaders leaning on women to solve their public policy failures. Regina Bateson is a political scientist and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa and parent to three boys. She implores us to remember the short and long term equity implications arising from insufficient support of our public education system. Mike Moffat is an Assistant Professor in the Business, Economics and Public Policy group at Ivey Business School, Western University and the Senior Director of Policy and Innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute and parent to two children. He wants governments to communicate better with parents and to meet them where they are. The children of all four parents are back to in person learning at elementary school (sorta*). I’m a parent too who sent her elementary school and high school aged children back to in person learning (sorta*).

In speaking with these parents, it became clear to me that there really was no choice about back to school. For many, sending their kids back to school was an absolute necessity in order to meet work obligations, as was the case for Lauren. And for parents of younger children, there is literally no evidence supporting the effectiveness of virtual education. Some children also need the psycho-social benefits that can only come from in-person learning more than others; the reading, writing and arithmetic is on par or secondary for some, like Mike Moffat’s children.

Further, for something to be a choice, the decision-maker needs to have access to and understand the information relevant to both options. All of the parents felt that there were key pieces of information missing, like class sizes, as well as a lack of transparency around how the government planned to manage community transmission throughout the school year. For example, New York State published guidelines that indicated schools could reopen only if daily community transmission rates stayed at 5% or lowerbased on a 14-day average and schools would close if the regional infection rate rises above 9 percent, using a 7-day average, after August 1. That’s clear guidance.

Even if there were perfect information and a more viable virtual learning alternative, it was still an impossible decision. It was impossible because for many parents the option of virtual versus in-person learning in school came down to a choice between: the health of their elderly parents or the health of their children; a child’s mental health or physical health; and financial security or physical safety. It was also about whether the sacrifices in the spring and summer were for naught or for a better tomorrow. Those are some serious sunk costs, coupled with no good options.

Last, some of the parents felt that opting for virtual learning could undermine the future of the in person public education system. In an interview with Piya Chattopadhyay on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Magazine, Charles Pascal describes public education as the best investment a society can make and Regina Bateson in conversation with me points out that no country ever regrets investing in public education. Robust public education systems contribute to more just and healthier societies, not just for the few but for the many. For the parents I spoke with and for myself, sending our kids back to school was a vote for and investment in the greater long-term good of public education despite our immediate safety concerns.

When deciding whether to send their kids back to school was an impossible uninformed non-choice. The worst kind of risk scenario in many respects.

Risk is a team sport but there always needs to be a risk owner. That owner can work to avoid the risk, to mitigate it or to transfer it. When it comes to a safe school year, the risk owner has to be the level of government that not only holds the purse strings and sets the standards for education but does the same for public health in the school jurisdiction, as Lauren ably argues. We all have great sympathy for the battlefield conditions in which governments and policy makers are operating. Nevertheless looking back and living through it, it does look and feel like the government tried to transfer risks associated with school reopening to parents. Without the autonomy to control influential factors, the necessary information upon which to base a decision or any effective alternative to in-person learning for so many parents across Ontario, the risks associated with back to school were more transferred and downloaded than assumed by choice.

School systems around the world have reopened and the Commonwealth Fund provides a good overview of the learnings gained from across these experiences. But it was only after examining a school reopening experience much closer to home did I gain real clarity on how much better it could have been handled. On the Ahkameyimok Podcast with National Chief Perry Bellegarde, National Chief speaks with the Chief Executive Officer of the First Nations Health Managers Association, Marion Crowe, about COVID-19 and Back to School. In their discussion a few key themes emerged. Departmental and jurisdictional silos are barriers to the best decisions. The First Nations Health Managers Association offers a COVID-19 information resource hotline, InfoPoint, open to health managers across 634 First Nations across Canada and it contains information related to school openings, not just traditional health care guidance. One consolidated information resource; not six-hundred and thirty-four and not one for education and another for health. National Chief and Ms Crowe also highlighted how the mental health needs of parents have been taken into account in plans to return to the classroom. Innovations around handwashing measures and desk barriers at Chief Paskwa Education Centre in Saskatchewan are good examples. These creative measures ease the anxiety of parents because they communicate that children’s safety is being prioritized. I’ve shared just a few of the smart innovations and policies discussed on the podcast, all of which were developed and deployed in a much more resource constrained context.

Remember in the before times when we all could gather closely together to listen to live music? One of my favourite concert memories is from the Stardust Picnic at Fort York in Toronto in 1998. Blue Rodeo played on a perfect summer evening. On their playlist was Diamond Mine. Why do I bring this up in the context of fumbled public school re-openings? Sing it, Greg:

Nothing’s as obvious as what is lost

Nothing’s as painful as the cost

I like the suggestion of Mike Moffatt and Regina Bateson: policy makers must take a hard look at what’s not working now and bring in communications swat teams; and they need to start planning now for how we make up the gaps being created today during this period of pandemic disruption. Jimmy Sarakatsannis of McKinsey observes that there are reports out of China of significant numbers of students self-reporting symptoms of depression or other mental health challenges following school closures and in the United States they expect students will lose at least six months of learning or more. As Lauren Dobson-Hughes rightly points out, the PTA can’t address these problems. We cannot afford governments and policymakers waiting for the pandemic to be over to act. The hard, detailed work needs to start now and then be piloted, practiced and rehearsed. In other words, our best risk-thinking needs to be applied by the proper risk owner to solve today’s public education challenges and avoid long-term negative outcomes. Let’s not wait for the system to be lost, for future generations to bear the costs and for all of us to be faced with further impossible uninformed non-choices.

Please subscribe to the @risk podcast and share with me your back to school experience or even your favourite concert!

*Mike Moffatt’s daughter’s school closed for two weeks due to an outbreak at the time of recording and my entire family is at home in quarantine while we wait for the results of a COVID-19 test at the time of release of the podcast.

Jodi Butts, host of @Risk