In Canada, we are worried about our children returning to school safely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are worried about keeping everyone safe. I know I am. I have so many questions.

Will we be able to convince youth to wear masks?

Are we doing enough?

Are we forgetting anything?

How will we control who enters schools?

How do we include children and youth and families in our planning without making them feel any more nervous? The answer is clear. We won’t.

Our preparations and drills always make people feel more nervous, and that makes sense. In a way, causing people to feel nervous is a good thing. It is complacency that is the risk. It is never a risk to take preventative action against dangers that can be prevented. We can prevent infection from COVID-19 with a number of easy measures and we should take these measures. It makes sense for all of us to feel nervous about contracting a deadly infection and to do whatever we can to prevent this happening.

There are many youth and parents whom I meet who feel that this is too much to ask, that we will never manage this. I thought so too until I had a conversation with an American friend. Many American children have already returned to school and I wondered how parents and children were coping with COVID prevention there.

In our online chat, I asked her: “Do the protocols make parents or kids nervous?”

“You don’t think much about the United States, do you?”

I hesitated because, honestly, whenever one talks about America these days, a political debate quickly flares up and I don’t feel it’s my place to get into this debate. In the end, I explained this to my friend.

She sent me this article and a few others. In the United States, after the Columbine school killings in 1999, American schools began to adopt “active shooter drills”. These are mandatory in many places and, after the Sandy Hook shootings in December 2012, even four year old children are included in “active shooter drills” in some places.

Think about this.

You’re an elementary school teacher and one of the first things you have to do every year is to help your young charges to practice how to be safe in a number of situations.

You help them know their place in line at a fire drill.

You lead them to their exit should there have to be an evacuation because of a storm or hurricane.

Those are sensible drills and most people who have attended school in the last seventy years have done similar drills.

But, in some parts of the United States, a teacher also has to prepare for a person coming into their midst with an intention to kill people, even little children.

This is a picture of my children when they were four, five and six years old. The child victims at Sandy Hook were 6 and 7 years old. They looked like my little daughter.

So far in Canada, only our educators and other adults who work in schools must think about this situation because school shootings have been rare here. There is a movement in the United States to stop “active shooter drills” because they terrify children. Doctors and educators express concern about the anxiety caused by these drills.

These drills remind me of the “nuclear attack drills” that were conducted across North America during the 1950’s and into the early 1960’s. I cannot remember these, but I remember hearing about them. I am not certain why they were stopped but, if it was because they were not going to prevent harm, that makes sense to me.

I can relate to the same sentiment about the shooter drills. Not only do they terrify teachers and children, but they are not preventing the fundamental problem. Why not work to prevent shootings, which are the real terror? Teachers are well-educated people and I am certain that they have thought of this.

Consider what all these drills tell us about teachers. Teachers’ commitment to drills tells us that they will do whatever it takes to keep their young charges safe. Teachers learn how to deliver these drills calmly, promoting safety. They remind children and youth that the best way to overcome justifiable anxiety about a dangerous situation is to prepare for it and work to prevent it.

It difficult to prepare for the rapid unpredictability of an active shooter situation and it was not sensible to think that the harm of a nuclear attack could be averted by anything less that working to prevent it. It is not as difficult to prepare for COVID-19 because we know what to do and there is good evidence that we can work to prevent COVID-19 infection from spreading.

We can keep children safe at school from COVID-19. We will lobby for as many safety measures as possible and we will be vigilant in maintaining the protocols, but we are not in an impossible situation.

After the reminder from my friend in America that we are on the right track to prevent the worst outcomes of COVID-19, I am feeling more confident about being able to prepare children and youth for school this fall.

The message I will bring to the youth and families in my practice is hat we know how to do this, and even if we do not have all the tools we want, we will prevent the opening of schools from making the pandemic worse.

(This is an image of young children practising for a nuclear attack. Do you think this is effective prevention?)

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