Parents/guardians and children and encouraged to focus on the things that are in their control

Students across Ontario are preparing to head back to school Tuesday after being out of the classroom for nearly six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, on top of the typical back-to-school rush, parents have also had to grapple with new policies and regulations and a lot of uncertainty around whether a return to in-class learning is safe for their kids.

A recent online survey conducted by Children’s Mental Health Ontario revealed that 90 per cent of parents are experiencing stress and worry about the new school year, and more than half of respondents said that they are extremely worried.

One of the best ways to manage this stress – for both parents/guardians and children – is to focus on the things that are in your control.

“A lot of what has been happening during this pandemic has been outside of everyone’s control. That uncertainty typically raises a lot of anxiety in children and their families,” said Alana Jackson, clinical manager at Compass, an organization that offers free mental health services for children and youth in Sudbury, Espanola, and Manitoulin Island.

“One thing that we can do is look for the things we can control and empower our children to make choices that help them gain a sense of control over their lives.”

The best way to determine what is in your control is to stay informed – but there is so much information circling out there about COVID-19 and the reopening of Ontario schools that it is difficult to parse through.

Here are some of the things you need to know going into the 2020-21 school year.

The best way to keep COVID-19 out of schools is to keep COVID-19 out of our communities.

Medical officers of health and directors of education from across Northern Ontario came together to release a list of Top 10 Basic Rules for Safe Schools on Sept. 2, and this rule is the first one on the list.

“The absolute best thing that we can do for a successful school reopening is keep the number of positive COVID-19 cases in our community as low as possible,” said Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, chief medical officer of health at Public Health Sudbury & Districts.

“I know I sound like a broken record, but now more than ever, we need to recommit to COVID-19 prevention.”

Even if you think you know the drill, now is a good time to refresh your memory and make sure your children understand COVID-19 prevention measures: practise good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, keep at least six feet or two metres distance from those who aren’t in your social circle, wear a non-medical mask or face covering when physical distancing is impossible, and avoid gathering in large groups.

Read, and then re-read your school board’s reopening plan. 

School boards across the North have all released detailed plans tailored specifically to their unique student populations.

The plans address health and safety regulations, new policies and routines, mental health services, support for students with special needs, and so much more.But most importantly, not all reopening plans are the same.

All of the reopening plans include information about enhanced cleaning and sanitizing processes and new routines, and they have been put in place with the best intention to keep staff and students safe.

Sort out Plan B right now. 

“Nobody wants this to go sideways,” said Sutcliffe.

“But it’s important to know that every school had a Plan B because it would not be unexpected to have a case of COVID-19 or an outbreak in one of our schools.

So, we need to not think that is a failure or the end of the world. We planned for this. We can manage it, and we know what steps to take.”

Parents and guardians should have a Plan B in place, too.

Most school boards are asking parents to provide a “full list of emergency contacts” for each student attending school. This means having a back-up plan in the event that a parent or guardian cannot pick the student up (students who do become ill will not be allowed to take public transit or the school bus home).

It’s also important for parents to have a plan in case their child becomes ill and cannot attend school. Be prepared to pivot during a particularly serious outbreak – or even a second wave of COVID-19.

A solid plan is flexible and accounts for the need to self-isolate or return to distance learning. Walking the kids through the plan to minimize stress is a good idea, too.

Know what your kids need. 

Students at some boards are encouraged to bring their school bag, lunch box, reusable water bottle, as well as their school supplies and technological tools.

Others are asked to come to school with their own masks. Cloth masks are recommended, since they are reusable, can be washed daily, and are more environmentally friendly.

It also is recommended that students bring more than one mask in case one becomes wet or damaged throughout the day. Masks should be washed and dried on a nightly basis.

At some boards, there will be no self-serving food items in cafeterias and use of microwaves will be prohibited – students are encouraged to bring their own lunches accordingly, and keep a personal, labelled water bottle.

Students will be encouraged to leave many personal items at home and bring only what they need to school.

Consult your school board’s reopening plan, and any materials sent directly by the school, to determine exactly what your child needs to start the school year on the right foot.

Talk to your kids about COVID-culture. 

Students will not be able to crowd the halls between classes anymore. They will have to keep to one side of the hall to promote physical distancing.

Secondary students might not get to see all of their friends – students will be cohorted with in-person contacts kept to two classes or within their grade depending on the size of the school.

According to the Ministry of Education’s guidelines, direct and indirect contacts will be limited to 50 for elementary school students and 100 for secondary school students.

“Normalizing this new culture, and stabilizing students in their new routine to get them used to the new normal and the new COVID-culture is a priority right now. Academics seem almost secondary at this point,” said Sutcliffe.

One of the ways that parents can prepare their students for what’s coming, is to role-play possible scenarios.Build COVID-screening into your morning routine. 

Get in the habit of screening yourself and your children for COVID-19 symptoms before school each morning.

Some school boards, like have provided a COVID-19 assessment questionnaire in their school reopening plan.

Parents can also use online tools like the Province of Ontario’s online assessment to check for symptoms.

Online questionnaires will ask questions like have you travelled outside of the country in the last 14 days, and have you administered any fever-reducing medications in the last 24 hours.

Screening tools will also ask parents to go through a list of symptoms to identify possible cases of COVID-19.

Some schools might also require parents to take their temperature and their child’s temperature before attending school, as many child-care centres have done during reopening this summer. In that case, it’s important to have a thermometer handy.

If you or your child presents with symptoms (of COVID-19 or otherwise), stay home.

Employers should be aware that it is much less expensive to have one employee stay home than to put their entire workforce at risk.

Familiarize yourself with school protocol in the event that someone becomes ill. 

All school boards in Northern Ontario have close partnerships with their local health units and will be keeping records for contact tracing purposes.In the event that someone becomes ill at school, they must let an adult know right away.

They will be isolated in a designated isolation room. Those on their emergency contact list will be contacted, and parents will be expected to pick their children up immediately.

Parents or guardians will be asked to have their child’s symptoms assessed to determine if testing is needed. If testing is not needed, the student can return to school after being symptom-free for 24 hours.

If testing is needed, the student must stay away from school and self-isolate until the results of the test are known. If testing is needed, but families choose not to proceed with testing, students are required to self-isolate and be away from school for 14 days unless public health directs otherwise.

Anyone with at least one COVID-19 symptom should consider testing. Self-isolation also applies to caregivers if they themselves cannot isolate from the person who has symptoms (for example, a young child).

If a case of COVID-19 is reported in a school, the specific situation will be investigated by public health.

Anyone who was in close contact with the person infected will be advised to go home and self-isolate for 14 days and get tested for COVID-19.

If two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases in students or staff in a school are linked to each other, an outbreak will be declared by public health.

Colleen Romaniuk is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with The Sudbury Star. The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.