We’re all eager for our kids’ school experience to be simple and familiar again, but is that realistic right now? Here, a family physician and an elementary school principal provide answers to the questions that are likely on your mind.

Will returning to school put my child at a greater risk of getting COVID-19?

This answer will depend on the current public health situation and case counts in your region. “If cases remain low and there are good preventative measures in place, schools should be safe,” says Dr. Melissa Lem, a Vancouver-based family physician (and mom of a second-grader).

While she understands why parents may be feeling nervous, Dr. Lem adds: “We know that protective measures such as vaccines and masks are very effective at preventing individuals of all ages from catching and spreading COVID-19. This has been researched, scientifically tested and validated to an incredibly high degree.”

Will there be a vaccine for kids 11 and under?

Thanks to vaccination efforts, a large percentage of teachers, support staff and students ages 12 and up will be fully vaccinated as they enter school. According to Dr. Lem, the vaccine outlook for younger students is promising. “The results of ongoing trials on mRNA vaccines in kids under 12 should be announced in the fall,” she predicts. “Given the excellent results in older children and adults, I expect they will be found safe and effective.”

What about coronavirus variants? How dangerous are they to kids?

“Our vaccines are highly effective against hospitalization and death from every variant we’ve identified so far,” Dr. Lem says. “I would encourage everyone to get fully immunized with two doses as soon as they can, and speak up in support of wide distribution of vaccines to lower-income countries to reduce the risk of new variants arising.”

Will students and teachers still be required to wear masks?

“Our top priority is to keep students safe and healthy so that in-school learning can happen for as long as possible – and masks will be part of that,” says Sean Spitzig, an elementary principal with the Waterloo Catholic District School Board (and father of three). He says that overall, he has been impressed with students’ coping and compliance, noting that “kids are sometimes stronger than we give them credit for.”

In discussions about masks, Spitzig tries to encourage big-picture thinking. “This is our time to be global citizens and do our part,” he says. “We are not being asked to drill a well, construct a school or deliver supplies to people in need. We are being asked to wear a mask. We can handle this.”

Will students be grouped in “cohorts” again?

“It is realistic to expect that students will be organized in cohorts, to limit student contact within the school,” Spitzig says. This approach can take a variety of forms, including smaller class sizes or separate time slots for recess and lunch. However, many of these decisions must be customized based on a school’s student population, building size and available outdoor space.

Will there be improved ventilation in classrooms?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website states that proper ventilation, in combination with other preventive actions, can help reduce the number of virus particles in the air and thus lower the risk of indoor spread. Improving a school’s ventilation may involve upgrading its Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system, opening more classroom windows to increase air flow, or using High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters.

Dr. Lem points out that a recent CDC simulation found that the combination of masks and HEPA air cleaners reduced the risk of exposure to COVID-19 by up to 90 per cent. Because every school configuration is different, check with the school or district to find out what measures are being implemented.

What other protocols will be in place?

Clearly, COVID-19 prevention in schools requires a variety of strategies to be applied simultaneously. In addition to vaccines, masks, cohorts and improved ventilation, this year’s back-to-school guidelines will likely include:

  • Frequent hand hygiene (washing and/or sanitizing)
  • Controlled entrance and exit points
  • Limited (or no) visitors in the school
  • No sharing of food, supplies or equipment
  • Daily self-screening
  • Students and staff staying home if experiencing symptoms

Physical distancing is another important tactic that will continue to influence daily routines such as lining up, desk placement, and locker use. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends maintaining a distance of at least 3 feet (1 meter) between individuals.

If it is safer to be outside, can schools do more outdoor learning?

They can, and they are! “Many teachers took their classes outside this past year, so students could read, write journal entries or use mini whiteboards in the shade of the trees,” Spitzig says. “Our kindergarten classes did scavenger hunts and collected ‘loose parts’ for nature-inspired art projects.”

In Dr. Lem’s opinion, outside is one of the safest places to be right now, and kids will benefit from outdoor time throughout their school day. “In addition to the fresh air, contact with nature can do wonders for kids’ physical and mental health,” she says. “This exposure could occur while walking to and from school, playing in green spaces during recess or Phys. Ed. class, tending to a plant or garden, and other creative outdoor learning activities.”

Has my child “fallen behind” because of the learning disruptions of the last two years?

“I would strongly urge parents to let go of this worry,” Spitzig says. “Students continued to work hard last year and covered the grade-appropriate material. This year is not about ‘closing the gap.’ Teachers will welcome students back, build relationships, assess where they are academically, encourage them, and develop a program to move them forward. This has not changed because of COVID-19 – this is what we’ve always done.”

As a parent, how can I help the school community?

Even though pizza days and other volunteer opportunities are on hold, there are still many ways to support the school’s efforts:

  • Read all communication from the school carefully, especially since first-day procedures may be different or unfamiliar. Follow the school board’s social media accounts and check your school’s website for the latest updates.
  • If the school is not allowing visitors, don’t take it personally. The fewer exceptions the school has to make, the safer it is for your child and others.
  • Speak positively to your kids about the school and the safety measures. If you do have a concern, contact the school directly.
  • Get organized in advance to avoid last-minute stress. Wait for clear direction before buying school supplies, as these may be provided by the school.
  • Be diligent and honest when completing the daily screening form. “It was truly appreciated when families made the difficult decision to keep their child home when there were any symptoms,” Spitzig says.
  • Practice good handwashing habits at home and wear proper-fitting masks when visiting indoor public settings like stores or libraries.

Will things ever go back to the way they were?

We all want to see the return of field trips, assemblies, extra-curricular clubs, sports teams, and other fun school activities. Evan so, we must proceed with patience and care. “Right now, we need to focus on the fact that this is the new normal,” Spitzig says. “Things have changed and every school is doing their best. When we are given new guidelines, we act to make things compliant and safe for our students.”

Even amid the uncertainty, Dr. Lem sees a silver lining: “The good news is that some of the changes we’re starting to see in schools – such as smaller class sizes, better air circulation and an increased emphasis on outdoor learning – are good for all kids, even when there isn’t a pandemic.”

“The teachers, administrators and support staff at your child’s school are ready for whatever lies ahead,” says Spitzig. “We are not perfect and we do not have the ‘inside track.’ But we do love kids and we are good at our jobs! If we all continue to work together and be flexible, we will get through another year.”


Kristi York is a freelance writer and mom of two sports-loving boys. Her work has been published by ParentsCanada, Running Room, ParticipACTION and The Costco Connection.

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