Ethicists stress mutual responsibility amid school reopenings

Primary school students return to class after COVID-19 lockdown. The Rev. Canon Eric Beresford suggests that the pandemic has further exposed negative consequences of what he describes as “a number of years of unhelpful decisions being made about education.” Photo: Shutterstock
Published October 15, 2020

The return of students to classrooms in August and September sparked mixed emotions among Canadians still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Major media reported that for many parents and teachers, fear and anxiety about spread of the coronavirus were accompanied by relief at the reopening of schools. Meanwhile, governments moving ahead with reopening faced pushback from teachers and doctors who criticized what they saw as inadequate safety measures and dangerously large class sizes.

In Quebec, more than 100 doctors and scientists signed an open letter to the provincial government saying its plan to return students to the classroom was “inadequate and needs to be improved.” In Ontario, all four major teachers’ unions filed a labour board complaint arguing that the provincial government’s reopening plan violated its own workplace safety laws. In Alberta, teachers at a Calgary high school that experienced a COVID-19 outbreak expressed fears for their safety to the CBC, with one saying they felt like “cannon fodder.”

To gain some insight into moral quandaries arising from the reopening of schools, the Journal spoke to two prominent ethicists within the Anglican Church of Canada: the Rev. Canon Eric Beresford and the Rev. Dr. Christopher Brittain.

Beresford, currently incumbent at St. Timothy Anglican Church in Toronto, served from 1996 to 2004 as the Anglican Church of Canada’s consultant for ethics and interfaith relations. He was a consultant for ethics at the Anglican Communion Office from 1998 to 2004 and later headed the Anglican Church of Canada’s task force on physician-assisted dying. Brittain, dean of divinity at Trinity College, has conducted extensive training and research in social ethics.

In determining what values should guide society through the reopening of schools, both ethicists agreed on one key principle: our mutual responsibility to each other, or what Brittain describes as “the general Christian principle of love of neighbour, or the valuing of the different roles in society.”

Viewing ethical questions in terms of our responsibility to one another, Beresford suggests, is an approach more in line with fundamental theological and Christian values than weighing perceived risks and benefits.

“The problem with that language [of balancing risks and benefits] is it assumes that the risks and the benefits all fit on the same scale,” Beresford says. “I’m not sure in this case that they do—that the damage caused to the social, intellectual maturing of children is a different thing than health risk.” He expresses doubt that these two risks are comparable.

Rather than the language of risk and benefit, Beresford puts forward “the languages of community and responsibility…. What we’re thinking about is a society that takes mutual responsibility very seriously—a society that doesn’t limit that mutual responsibility based on age, class, health status, economic status,” he says.

The reality, however, can often fall short of that ideal. Beresford points to the tendency of many leaders to pass on responsibility for their decisions, such as leaders in provincial governments.

“Instead of [government leaders] being responsible for the decisions that they make or that they effectively force, they say, ‘Well, no, it’s up to parents,’ or ‘It’s up to school boards.’”

Beresford says this amounts to governments asking parents to choose despite having few “good decisions” to make.

“The reality is that some parents—and it’s going to be disproportionately parents in lower socioeconomic categories, poorer parents—are going to find themselves in a situation where they have no choice but to send their kids to school…. They will also be the parents who live in the parts of our cities especially where the levels of infection are highest.”

Beresford and Brittain each support the idea of sending children back to school if it is safe to do so. The public school system, Brittain notes, “is one of the main ways our society has tried to address issues of equity and support for young people.” He also expresses concern for trends towards learning pods and home schooling as being “for the privileged elite of our society and for certain social groups.”

Students return to school in the Netherlands earlier this year. Photo by Gregorj Cocco via Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

However, the two ethicists differ on the extent to which governments and schools have met the criterion of providing a safe environment. Public schools in Germany, Scotland and Scandinavian countries have returned students to classrooms and reports have been largely positive, Brittain says.

“This is not to say that there aren’t any examples of students coming down with COVID,” he adds. “But it’s not being spread in the schools. They’re not picking it up in the school system, and they’re not spreading it through their fellow students.”

At the time this article was written, COVID-19 cases had seen a spike in Europe and were also rising in Canada. Yet these increases, Brittain says, did not appear to be related to schools reopening.

Canada’s leading health officials have backed that assessment. Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said on Sept. 15 that social gatherings were the main cause for the rise in cases, with “several reported outbreaks … linked to single gatherings such as private social events, celebrations and community events held indoors.”

Even so, Beresford echoes many teachers in expressing concern over large class sizes. In Ontario, he says, “according to the government” parents have the decision whether or not to send their children to school.

But rather than resulting in smaller class sizes due to fewer students being physically present, classes that have been reduced in size are being combined.

“It’s likely the class sizes this year will at least be the same as, if not higher than last year,” Beresford says. “That’s a real problem, it seems to me. The governments are making it possible for parents to keep kids at home, but they’re not then taking the advantages they gain from that and using it to create safer conditions for the kids who come to school.”

In general, Beresford views the reopening of schools in Canada as a situation marked by what “feels to be poor planning, last-minute panic, no attempt to reduce class size and increase the safety of kids in schools.” He points to children and staff members at Ottawa schools who were sent home to self-isolate after likely COVID-19 infection.

Brittain also acknowledges what appears to be “a real issue with planning and resources…. I think we’re right to ask serious questions to our governments and regional authorities. Why haven’t appropriate resources been allocated to help prepare both the facilities, but also to support the teachers in these efforts?”

At the same time, he adds, “I also think we also need to recognize that our society’s been caught flat-footed and we weren’t well-prepared to deal with this.” Brittain expresses sympathy for public officials grappling with such an unprecedented and complex situation.

He compares the task of reopening the public school system to his own experience at Trinity College.

“We’ve been working all summer just to figure out how to make it possible for 200 students to return to live in residence, which is only 40% of regular capacity, and how much time and effort that took for our staff,” Brittain says. “So managing a whole public school network must have been a nightmare.

“I do have some public school principals or vice principals that I know, and I know they’ve been working overtime and changing and adapting to new guidelines. So I think we should understand why the preparations have been imperfect.”

The pandemic, these ethicists suggest, has further exposed negative consequences of what Beresford describes as “a number of years of unhelpful decisions being made about education.”

Beresford recalls a recent conversation with his parish secretary who currently has a son in high school. When her son was in elementary school, average class sizes increased from 25 to 28.

“She and many parents were deeply upset by that,” Beresford recalled. “Well, now they’re going over 30 [students], and now we’re in pandemic conditions. So no, this does not sound very responsible. But what I hear from different levels of government is the buck being passed to somebody else. ‘This is not my fault, it’s their fault.’ And I think that’s a deep problem.”

Both Beresford and Brittain indicate that the challenges of school reopenings reflect larger problems in society which call for more active civic involvement, as well as a broader transformation of political and economic structures.

While parents and students worry about the risks of spreading the virus, Brittain points out that there are many other groups in society who have been made particularly vulnerable by the pandemic, from seniors and the elderly to homeless people to marginalized and racial groups such as Indigenous and Black Canadians.

He finds an “encouraging” development in how the pandemic has led many governments to “break their previous models of budgeting and accounting to support people” and to recognize that basic social supports must exist.

“I think there’s been at least some interruption in the sort of market capitalism mentality and supply-side economics that have driven our decision-making for the last number of decades…. I’m hopeful that this is not just a blip in the way our governments are going to be making financial decisions and public policy decisions,” Brittain says.

“But hopefully there’ll be a new form of economic mindset emerging, not only because of the pandemic… We know that because of climate change and issues of sustainability, we’re going to have to find a new system. So I’m hoping that we may have been forced into doing some reimagining of management of our resources in the wake of the pandemic, because we’re going to need that for future challenges as well.”

One of the main roles of Christians in the current situation, Beresford says, is to be informed. He encourages citizens to contact their provincial government representatives to express their anxieties or seek clarification on certain questions.

Some teachers have found other ways of expressing their concerns. In Mississaugua, teachers at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary School briefly walked off the job on Sept. 8, the first day back to school, citing an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment.

Brittain says Christians “are called to support strikes or to take part in protests when there is a clear moral failure on the part of governments and leaders.” But he makes a strong argument for other forms of civic engagement such as voting, volunteering and running for office on local councils and school boards.

“In addition to the option of protest, Christian need to also ask themselves, ‘What can I do to improve the situation?’ Protests generally demand others to fix the situation…. Christians need to offer themselves to the wider society to help it better address the issues that confront us.”


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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