The Omicron variant of COVID-19 prompted several provinces to reintroduce restrictions to act as a circuit-breaker ahead of what was supposed to be a busy holiday season. For some provinces, these measures were among the strictest implemented throughout the entire pandemic. One of the most-debated restrictions – school closures – were yet again enacted by most provinces and territories. While many schools had planned closures for the holiday season, several provinces and territories opted to extend school closures into at least part of January to curb transmission, mitigate staff sickness, distribute personal protective equipment and improve existing health measures.
School closures as last resort
Many teachers, parents, guardians and students have said closing schools should be a last resort. Several provincial governments have echoed that belief. Quebec Premier François Legault said: “It’s very important for children to go back to school, to learn, to reunite with their friends, to find some normality.” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stated: “Widespread school closures will be considered one of the biggest mistakes governments everywhere made in responding to COVID-19.”
Educational disruptions can impact students’ mental and emotional health, academic progress and future earning potential. Students from some lower-income households face increasing food insecurity as they lose access to school meal programs. While students can be resilient to short-term disruptions, with the two-year anniversary of the first COVID case in Canada having passed in January, this is no longer a short-term concern. School closures also affect parents who must make child-care arrangements on very short notice. Studies suggest that during the pandemic, additional child-care responsibilities have often fallen to women, prompting concerns about increasing career and wage gender gaps. The effects of school closures reverberate beyond just students and illustrate why keeping schools open should be a priority. Politicians have said they’ve made it a priority, but is that what they have done?
Measuring the stringency of public health measures
The Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation has been tracking provincial public health measures since March 2020. The centre’s stringency index consolidates 14 COVID restrictions into one index to compare the stringency of public health measures from each province.
Figure 1 shows the overall response of each province to the Omicron wave since the start of December (you can see the evolution of the index over the whole pandemic on the centre’s website). Most provinces increased the stringency of their measures by reducing gathering limits, closing or limiting the capacity of non-essential businesses and school closures. For Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and British Columbia, these measures were the strictest they had introduced since the start of the pandemic.
New Brunswick and Quebec experienced the steepest rise in stringency, with New Brunswick moving to its highest level of public health measures, and Quebec reintroducing a controversial curfew on Dec. 31. Saskatchewan stands out as being one of only two jurisdictions (alongside Yukon) that did not introduce any new public health measures in response to the Omicron variant. Despite a rising number of cases in Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe argued that “lockdowns cause significant harm for no clear benefit.”
School closures are one of the indicators that the centre’s stringency index tracks. Throughout the pandemic, we have kept track of schools closures and coded each province on a scale of zero (schools open) to three (fully remote) with categories in between capturing varying levels of disruptions to the normal learning environment. The index also accounts for whether the measure is applied province-wide or only in some regions.
Figure 2 shows how school closures have varied across provinces throughout the pandemic with summer vacations in grey. Ontario had the most-frequent fully-remote school closures across all provinces and territories (around 220 days over the pandemic). Yukon, Quebec and Saskatchewan, on the other hand, had the highest number of learning days where schools were fully open. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, closures were often limited to regions as opposed to the province as a whole.
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The contrast was perhaps clearest in the spring of 2021. Ontario alone opted for fully remote education (except Alberta for a short period) while Quebec introduced various measures in schools, such as staggered schedules, to avoid closing them altogether.
There are two limitations to the way the measure above captures school closures. First, we do not separate elementary schools from high schools. Rather, we code a province according to whichever is the most stringent on a given day. Second, the centre’s stringency index looks only at provincially mandated school closures and is consequently underestimating closures for districts, schools, classes and the individual student due to COVID exposure. In other words, Figure 2 shows the minimum days of remote schooling that children in a given province or territory have experienced but still provides a good comparison among provinces.
To see how school-based restrictions compare to other restrictions by province, we compare school closures with another area that has been the focus of attention: restaurants (figure 3).
Figure 3 shows the number of days that school restrictions have been more stringent than restaurants restrictions, and vice versa. It highlights a few different approaches. First, although Ontario and Quebec have both had numerous days of remote schooling, they also had the most days with restrictions for restaurants that were more stringent than those for schools. Both provinces had extensive lockdowns due to high death and hospitalization rates, and indoor dining was shut for long periods of time. However, Quebec differs from Ontario in that it has tended to keep restrictions on restaurants when lifting those on schools.
On the other hand, Nova Scotia has focused restrictions on schools while in the three territories and Prince Edward Island, the approach has been to have everything open to a similar extent and then introduce restrictions across the board when cases went up.
The decision to close schools versus restaurants is not straightforward. Closures of indoor dining venues have led to many restaurant workers losing their jobs, becoming dependent on income support and dealing with the stress of a precarious job situation. Another layer of complexity is that school-age children were among the last to become eligible for the COVID vaccine, leading to concerns from parents about the safety of children. To date, only approximately 51 per cent of children aged five to 11 have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, and only five per cent have been fully vaccinated.
In other words, the situation in restaurants and schools is not exactly the same but does give some indication of provincial and territorial priorities.
Two years into the pandemic, provinces and territories cannot continue to rely on school closures as circuit-breakers. While they have not repeated total school closures across the country, like those in the first wave, provinces still go fully remote from time to time, most recently in January. The tools to avoid this exist: Better masks, classroom ventilation, better vaccination rates among children, to name a few. Everything must be put in place so that closing schools really is a last resort and not just an empty promise.