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Coronavirus Q&A: Back-to-school special with Dr. Charles Pascal

Last Updated Oct 18, 2020 at 1:47 pm EDT

We know you have questions about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and we’re working to get you the answers, straight from the most trusted sources.

Award winning early and higher education expert Dr. Charles Pascal is a professor of applied psychology and human development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, former deputy minister of education in Ontario and an Order of Canada recipient.

He joined us LIVE to answer your questions and address concerns about sending children back to school, keeping them safe and the effects on their learning during COVID-19 on our Facebook page as well as here on our website.

Full transcript of the Q&A session:

(Questions and answers were moderated and have been edited for grammar, punctuation and clarity)


Q: What are some factors parents should consider before opting for either in-person or online learning, especially younger children or those starting kindergarten?

A: The first thing is to recognize that parents know their kids best.

With respect to this question, it’s really a matter of the child — where she or he is at, regarding getting excited about going to school — this’ll be the first in-school experience because it’s a junior kindergarten.

You also want to have a conversation with the principal and maybe go on-site to look at the most important thing, which is social distancing — ensuring that there is plenty of space, two meters or more between desks and that all the basics regarding hand-washing and those kinds of things are in play.

I think it’s about the environment and whether the environment is safe because there are many situations and classrooms around the province that are less than safe because of the lack of resources provided by the provincial government. In other situations, kindergarten teachers in the schools have had the ventilated space to make a go of it.

So a little more information, knowing your child being optimistic and staying calm. The most important thing for parents is do everything you can to take care of yourself so that you don’t pass on the stress to the kids.


Q: What is your direct message to kids? What would you say to a young child who is anxious about starting school in this environment?

A: Independent of the pandemic, there’s always differences across the diversity of the youngest of our young. So it’s about whether this is unusual anxiety about it, or just simply the natural expectations about something new — again, parents know their kids best.

If you feel, based on direct information from the school, that a junior kindergarten class, senior kindergarten class and those from one to three and up, that the social distancing has been able to be managed by that particular school — and that’s a problem across the province because of the lack of provincial resources — but if the social distancing is there and everything else is in place, pushing the child just a little bit beyond that natural anxiety is ok. But if the anxiety is high, you have to respect that because you don’t want to create further issues and stress again. How parents have these discussions have to be with as much calm as possible.


Q: Knowing adolescents’ behavior, do you believe that keeping them in high school classrooms for over three hours without removing their masks or getting playful or sleepy will work?

A: Well, it wouldn’t work for me. Having a mask on for more than a little while is challenging.

But I wouldn’t want students of any age to be in school that long without breaks. So my suggestion is, independent of the weather, let’s break it up. Let’s go for walks, let’s have walking conversations with social distance.

This also raises an important question about the feeling of freedom that “everything’s going to be fine,” that we’re seeing in younger and younger people who are putting up in larger percentages regarding getting the virus.

So it’s all about monitoring and making sure that out in the playground during recess — and I think there should be more recesses — that that’s monitored and that people get used to understanding that this is not just about our own health, it’s about what we do for others.

For those who don’t get it yet — and there are far too many that don’t — think back about when we got rid of smoking. We didn’t get rid of smoking until the science showed that basically second-hand smoke really hurt other people. And we need more and more people in Canada to understand that this is about something larger than our own particular view of freedom or liberty to do anything we want.


Q: How do parents prepare the little ones for this new reality in school? What are the kinds of rules that they might be able to implement and how can they properly prepare them to understand what’s happening?

A: You always have to look for silver linings and stay as optimistic as we can — on the positive side, little kids — two-year-olds, three-year-olds, four-year-olds — when I walk around Toronto or Picton Ontario, I see the youngest of our young already wearing masks where they should be wearing masks. They seem to be very proud of the masks they’re wearing. Some of them are kind of homemade, but quite safe. So, the notion wearing a mask, the notion of social distancing, a lot of that is already in place. The key of course is that I think the use of masks should be mandatory as young as possible, but masks should not be an excuse for lack of socials distancing.

And when we look at what’s required for elementary school kids and kindergarten kids — two meters apart, 15 kids or less, lots of ventilated space — the kinds of things that with better planning and better leadership provincially, we would have more confidence and fewer parents would be actually keeping their kids away from school rather than understanding that things are already in place.  So again, masks, social distancing and hand-washing and all the basics — all these things are going to have to be monitored.

But the kids are already used to wearing masks, I see them everywhere. But for a long time, wearing masks is very difficult for communications. So masks as much as possible, but also social distancing rules must be enforced.


Q: How have schools prepared and what are all the precautions that they should be taking or are taking in order to keep all our kids safe?

A: It’s the same kind of things mentioned earlier. However, childcare has been unfortunately not given a huge amount of attention.

When we want people to go back to work and we want their kids to be in safe environments — what about before and afterschool childcare? And we haven’t done well with respect to the proper investments we need in childcare. So when the federal government offered a couple of billion dollars a few weeks ago, I would love to have seen that earmarked towards childcare, which the federal government has some responsibility for assisting.

But regarding kids of all ages, it’s about ensuring health and safety — not just of the kids and the students — it’s about the health and wellbeing of our teachers and our caregivers and the mental health of everybody, parents, students, caregivers, childcare workers and teachers. That has to be part of how we go forward. Not enough attention has been paid to them.


Q: So as an education expert and the former deputy minister of education, what are your thoughts on the government’s plans for in-school learning, online learning an the adaptive models that would see students do a 50-50 split of both?

A: Let’s assume — God forbid and God help Ontario — I was still the deputy minister and let’s pretend that I had a minister that actually listened to me. I would have been having discussions with the minister and the Premier three months ago about the only options available.

It’s as though a few folks at Queens park just discovered that there would be three options maybe two months ago, rather than three or four months ago. These are finite options.

The amount of time we have lost regarding getting all of these various possibilities in place, including improving what we do in terms of online and remote distance learning and all the other things that need to be in place — a lot of time and has been squandered. But the most important thing that has been squandered the wonderful quality of collaboration. I listened to taxpayer paid ads that tell me that there’s been consultation with everybody and that simply is not true.

There has been a lack of collaboration with those at the frontline, education experts, people who understand what we might call “instructional systems design” that can get us the best ways of dealing with the online learning, which is going to be a work in progress for several years. But in addition to that, school boards have been given 37 different changes from the minister of education. You can choose whatever you want to do depending on your local needs, check with your public health authorities and then finally, “we want everybody in class.” Well, everybody in class would have been possible if things were planned well, because there was enough time and cooperation and collaboration.

Why is it that when the intent is to have all kids in face-to face school, that 25 to 50 per cent of parents at this point are keeping their kids in a home?

There seems to be a little unfortunate irony in the planning and support from the province, especially when it come to the amount of resources required for hiring more teachers. Now what we are facing unfortunately is, more parents are keeping kids out of school because they don’t think the planning and leadership from the province has been effective. So there are teachers actually getting layoff notices. So this is an unfortunate, perfect storm of the wrong kind regarding the need for more teachers, more social distancing, but because of the chaos, we are where we are.

Q: If you were making the choice, is it better to do virtual school first and see how that pans out, or then do in-person school first?

A: There’s a lot of conversations about what happens when there is a breakout at a school. It’s probably going to happen because of all the things that have not taken place.

So the best approach to all this would actually be to do everything possible to decrease the probability that there will ever be a breakout.

At this point in time, it’s ready, fire, aim. It’s, “we’re going to see how it works.” Parents will make their decisions and we’re going to learn as we go.

And one of the things that I would really like to encourage all parents and all teachers and students to do in addition to trying to remain calm is just taking notes of how it’s working or not working. And those notes are really important because that’s part of the improvement process. The more we learn as we go — whether you’re a student and what’s working well, or you’re a parent or teachers — what are the lived experiences that you can share with those leaders at the local level and the province? Those lessons learned, those lived experiences need to be shared with elected officials who work at the provincial level through direct conversations about “this isn’t working or here’s why it’s working” in very specific terms. So let’s keep track of things that will help us going forward in terms of re-imagining education going forward.

Q: Do you think that the public health guidelines are stringent enough? And can parents have confidence that the schools will in fact follow through and take all of those precautions?
A:  Well, when it comes to public health, it depends on what public health experts you’re listening to.

I have lost confidence in the chief medical officer of health for the province who always seems to be lagging behind the curve he’s trying to flatten. So when he endorses one meter of distancing for elementary school kids, it flies in the face of everything we’ve heard for five and a half months about the importance of social distancing.

Local public health authorities vary with respect to their own capacity. And we need to listen to epidemiologists — not just folks who have high level of credentials, including myself, who offer opinions rather than ideas based on evidence.


Q: Why are we reopening schools at all? Do you think it’s absolutely essential for children to be back in class in person learning? What are the benefits of in-person learning that would outweigh the considerations of all the COVID-19 risks?

A: We’ve known for a long time what the possibilities would be and people in other jurisdictions were talking about getting this right and maybe postponing the time of entry. It’s only recently, based on what BC did to just delay a week and the pressure from the bottom up — great educators, great directors of education and school boards and teachers and parents saying “shouldn’t we open when we’re ready?” — it’s only that bottom up pressure and maybe some polling results or focus group reports coming to the premier that all of a sudden the minister hops on board and is saying, yeah, we could have some delayed entries.

It just it’s taken so much time to understand “let’s open when we are ready.” I started advocating based on the fact that things were in such bad shape in terms of the lack of provincial leadership and resources — I suggested that we open October 1st or October 15th.

Let’s get this right. Let’s take a page from Denmark where they’ve been open safely for a number of months with groups of 12 kids that are basically part of their own bubble with one teacher, with extra curriculum materials brought in to help — and it’s working beautifully. And so yes, the lane to get it is great.

Again, I joined with the premier and the minister and others who say it’s great for kids to be back in school, but the conditions that have been created are making a lot of families keep their kids at home.

And the other thing I would say is when people say for the mental health of kids, they must go back to school — let’s remember that the COVID situation has pulled back the curtain on the fact that a lot of kids were not doing well before the pandemic. And so the notion of having kids whose needs — whether it’s issues of racism, LGBTQ bias, learning disabilities that were not detected — there are a host of reasons why the mental health of kids going back to school is not in their best interests.

And so somebody says “everybody’s got to go back to school because of their mental health,” well then, they haven’t been in school. They haven’t been looking at the nature of the diversity, the individual differences of our learners. So ideally we want everybody to be back, face-to-face with their peers and the great educators that we have in Ontario in a safe and healthy fashion. That should be the goal. That’s why we need to totally reimagine how we do what we do in our publicly funded system in Ontario.


Q: How do parent parents weigh the mental health benefits of having their children’s friends around them and being in a better learning environment versus the risk of COVID?

A: It depends on individual circumstances. It’s not just about the individual student and child, it’s about the family, it’s about who’s at home.

The other thing that some of the so called experts have missed is the assumption that the youngest of our young are safe. There’s increasing evidence from different parts of the world that’s showing that the youngest of our young may be asymptomatic carriers.

So again, the risk is based on the family situation, who’s at home and who’s at risk. All those things have to be calculated.

In my case, I’ve got five grandchildren and I’ve got a son-in-law who is a teacher and regarding the issue of who goes back to school and who doesn’t, it is an individualized situation based on who the kids are and what the home circumstances are.


Q: Many high school students need sports or drama to keep them inspired and involved in academics, as well as being able to socialize and all that will be gone this year. Many children thrive on in-person learning — they learn by seeing and doing and discussing. So how would you suggest that parents help their kids and guide them through this new reality?

A: Lets take the second part of the question first.

Highly effective online learning is interactive. It’s not the transfer of information to the black box of technology and out comes lectures and instructions. It’s highly interactive, it adapts to individual differences of kids and what they like, there’s problem solving, there’s peer group stuff that you can create in chat rooms. So there’s a huge amount of creative ways of having high levels of interactivity. I’ve been teaching at the university level for 10 years in virtual ways where 15 doctoral students at a time, wherever they are in the world are, are involved in a very intimate, peer supporting environment. So those kinds of things, I have a lot of confidence in our teachers to be able to eventually develop that — that’s going to take not just a couple of months — that kind of investment in doing those things creatively.

Now to the first part of the question: I’m an old guy, but my high school years was filled with three sports and a lot of time outs. That’s where I tried to learn how to be a leader through participation in sports, the arts — all those things are so important — but again, health and safety is first.

So I think the, the objective is for as much of outdoor play as possible, but let’s choose the outdoor play activities that are safe. We’re going to have to learn some new sports and in terms of art there can be situations where there’s plenty of social distancing. So I would, I would not give up on that.

Now I know there’ll be a lot of teachers who, given the fact that the amount of last minute changes to the plans coming down from on high, as of this moment don’t know exactly who they’re teaching, if they’re going to be teaching and what the setup is, thousands don’t know even right now.

So it might be possible that a lot of teachers will say, in terms of doing afterschool extra-curricular stuff, I just don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do that. And teachers who decide not to do that should be understood in terms of empathizing with them and all the things that they have to do. I wouldn’t see it as they’re striking or acting out. Our teachers desperately care about our student and our parents know that.

Q: Teachers are reportedly getting about three days of professional development training, is that enough to make them experts in handling all of the COVID-19 measures and all  the new protocols that are being put in place within schools?

A: It’s enough for the basics. It’s enough for hallway mask on, it’s enough for hand-washing, it’s enough for a monitoring during recess.

But If I was the deputy minister and I had a minister that listened to me I would have been advising my minister to make sure there was a mental health and wellbeing plan for our teachers about two months ago. I would be developing two or three in-depth workshops, first of all, on their own mental health and wellbeing. How are they doing to deal with those things?

You know, when the oxygen mask comes down in the airplane, the flight attendant would say “affix the mask to your own face before helping others.”

So it’s important to help teachers be resilient, help themselves and then they need to be trained on how to recognize what will likely happen. There will be kids who had mental health issues before the pandemic that have been exacerbated, and there’ll be new situations. And teachers need to be aware of what to see when the kids come back. That child in the corner, who’s not interacting with anybody, the bully on the other side of the continuum.

And again, the government decides they’re going to have 400 nurses for 4,500 schools — so they, they kind of go to a “let’s see what happens” rather than the ultimate in prevention, where you would actually have mental health and wellbeing experts ready to help teachers in the schools when these things arise — and they will arise. No preparation for that, no reasons, no resources for that and no time to get those things right.

On top of all that the minister has decided he’s going to implement a new math curriculum I don’t know if anybody who’s calling the shots has ever implemented anything. And the number one lesson for when you are implementing is you always involve those that are going to implement at the front end in the process of developing the idea and how it’s going to work.


Q: On the subject of postsecondary education, we’ve seen the plight of international students currently in Canada. Should Canada and Ontario be considering better protections and rights for them knowing what we know now.

A: Absolutely we need to provide for our international students and international students should not be seen by my colleagues at the postsecondary level as a “cash cow.” They should be seen as making the world smaller. They should be bringing what they know about this increasingly small and challenging world into our classrooms. We need to internationalize what we do everywhere, including our classrooms.

That said, the notion of of having a lot of international students come back from their home countries — it’s slim to none right now. In the case of the program where I work we are basically going to offer very creative, online, interactive learning for our students so that they can be where they are and participate, in an active, highly interactive webinar-based approach to education. So we want to keep as many as we can hopefully for all the right reasons.

There will be serious revenue loss for colleges and universities who have depended on international students to bound the books. That’s going to be a challenge for many of our colleges and universities.


Q: Why not make the call to only have younger kids go back to school, have high school kids learn online  and use the surplus space that is left in schools to spread kids out better?

A: This is the kind of creative thinking, these are the kinds of ideas we need — the use of space, the use of resources in this way, not withstanding the provinces under-funding by huge magnitude of what’s required for health and safety.

But that’s a very interesting idea and we don’t have to think about all schools, in every board, doing the same thing. Having the time, consulting with the grassroots, listening to ideas like this, gets us closer to the kind of collaboration that’s been missing desperately in Ontario.


Q: Any last words for parents who are gearing up to send their kids back into the classrooms?

A: I would end with the notion that the most important thing for all of us right now is the characteristic of empathy. Things will be stressful. Things are stressful right across the board, not just in education. So understanding the pressure on teachers when things aren’t perfect. And the same applies with what’s going on with students and teachers and employers.

So if parents have to wind up staying home when they wanted to go back to work, we need employers to empathize. We need flexibility, and we need to really understand in a respectful way what other people’s pressures are to be able to solve problems in a more focused way, because stress and anger — you can’t be angry and smart at the same time. Empathy is the number one thing that I think we all need a little bit more of, including me.

Statement from the Ministry of Education

680NEWS and CityNews reached out to the Ministry of Education to ask about concerns regarding how ready schools are to reopen, the concerns many have about physical distancing in class, online learning and mental health resources for teachers.

In a statement, spokeswoman Caitlin Clark said:

“Our plan to safely reopen schools has been informed by the best medical and scientific minds in the country. We are proud to lead the nation in COVID-19 school reopening funding, an aggressive masking policy for grades 4-12, hiring up to 1300 custodians and $75M in additional cleaning funding, along with the hiring of 625 public health nurses to support student health in our schools. 

The leading medical advice was clear that we must allow an opportunity for our students to return to school, combined with layers of prevention to maximize health and safety. We have done exactly that. 

We recognize that school boards have developed plans that best suit their local needs. We will never hesitate from taking further action to protect the health and safety of Ontario’s students and education staff.”

Watch the full interview with web writer Dilshad Burman in conversation with Dr. Charles Pascal in the video above.

Scroll through the questions submitted to this session below.

Note: questions were moderated before appearing in the chat window