Donald Fajemisin: Education during a pandemic

The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta did not only usher in the end of the Golden Age of ancient Greece, it also brought devastating disease that depleted the Athenians forces against a vastly superior Spartan fighting force. With this birth of pandemic, migration and civilization accoutered human populations with ravaging effects of infectious diseases throughout our history, even in this modern era.

Diseases and infections have beleaguered mankind since this earliest time. But increasing globalization and the possibilities of pandemics increase with populations and an attendant cynicism. From the Antonine and Justinian plagues of the Second and Sixth centuries up to the COVID-19 of the 21st Century, pandemics have persisted throughout our history. However, advances in medicines and healthcare have gradually reduced the death rates from the millions to the hundreds of thousands.

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During ancient times, it was believed that the spirits and gods inflicted disease and destruction upon those that deserved their wrath. This unscientific perspicacity resulted in disastrous responses with the deaths of millions of people. For example, Procopius of Caesarea, the Byzantine historian, blamed the Yersinia plague on China and India. Sound familiar? Fortunately, humanity’s understanding of the causes of diseases has resulted in a drastic improvement in the response to modern-day pandemics.

COVID-19 Quarantine

It is very difficult to find people that have really enjoyed the lock-down instituted by governments the world over today. For those that have not taken COVID infection seriously, I will remind you of the Black Death, which led to the Invention of Quarantine. The deadliest recorded pandemic in human history claimed the lives of about half of the population of Europe in the 14th Century.

Though the scientific understanding of the contagion was not clear, it was suspected to be linked with proximity. So, forward-thinking officials in Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa decided to keep newly arrived sailors in isolation for 40 days, ("a quarantino", in Italian) until they could prove they weren’t sick.

COVID-19 Response

The Trudeau government deserved an excellent mark for their management of the outbreak. If the government at our southern border could award itself an A+, our federal response earned a A+++, especially for supporting the provincial and territorial governments.

Our strategies of containment and mitigation helped to decrease the epidemic peak, thereby flattening the curve. Although population-wide strategies such as social-distancing, isolation, and quarantine have contributed to flattening the curve, they have come at a staggering cost, resulting in a clamour for the return of a semblance of normalcy. The economy is being revitalized and students are being encouraged back to school.

Back to School

Governments are directing kids of school age to return to in-class instructions. Pediatricians inform that in addition to academics, schools teach social and emotional skills, provide physical activities and mental support, as well as other tangible benefits that cannot be accessed through the internet.

We educators, administrators, staff, and teachers are not in disagreement with these facts. Even for obviously selfish reasons, we want the kids back in schools. Our concerns have always been how. This point can be underscored by a classroom teacher in the U.S. who says and I quote, “I will take a bullet for my students BUT I will not take a virus to my family.”

Some have been pressuring schools to open by claiming that children and adolescents are less likely to contract the infection or show significant symptoms. But they are overlooking that these kids have not shown high infection rates largely because they have been relatively sheltered. Recent studies have shown alarming presence of the pathogens in children and the ability to transmit the infections at the same rate as adults.

In the true spirit of our educational motto, “loco parentis”, I am more concerned about the longer-lasting or irreplaceable effects of infections. Economic recoveries may be daunting; cognitive, psychological, and academic recoveries may be very difficult, however, lost lives cannot be brought back.

What We Demand and Can be Done

According to the health authorities, the following guidelines should be upheld in order to stay safe and prevent the spread of the virus:

Social distancing – This maybe possible in small schools and very difficult in large ones. A practical solution will be a hybrid of in-class and on-line instruction. Alternating list of students attending in-class and online instruction simultaneously, every other weekday. Staff, students, and teachers who are more likely to contract COVID-19 should have the opportunities to study or work from the safety of their homes.

Masks, good hygiene, and regular sanitation have been found to quadruple the protection from infection. After dilly-dallying around masks wearing, I am pleased to see the province mandating their use of in schools. This should not have been any brainer if people are been asked to wear to use them in stores and business, why not at schools where hundreds of people are gathered under a single roof.

The cost of implementing these measures should not be rationed. There are 60 school districts and about 1,600 public schools in BC. So, an allocation of $45 million is grossly inadequate.

Temperature checks and testing for COVID-19 of all students will probably be imposible for most schools. However, clear and practical ways of identifying symptoms of the infection should not be downplayed.

Donald Fajemisin, an NDP member, is an educator and a resident of Fort St. John. 

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