Educating for Democracy in the Time of COVID-19

Posted April 14, 2020
By Danielle S. McLaughlin

For those of us who have young people in our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic can present a unique opportunity to engage them in exercises that focus on democracy. Whether those young people are stuck in your home with you, or are distanced from you and only reachable using some kind of media (including your basic telephone), you can spend a little of the rather too abundant time we now have asking and considering important questions. 

Many of the questions about democracy will naturally arise from the very conditions in which we all are living. Whatever you think about “social distancing,” it helps to clarify why we are doing it.

So, why ARE we staying at home, only seeing immediate family, standing 2 meters apart in long lines to shop for essentials, and washing, washing, washing our hands?

It is not nearly sufficient to tell our young people that “that’s the rule.” They will and should want to know the rationale for the rules. Kids might ask: Who is the boss of us? Did my family decide to do this? Did the police tell us to stay home? Did the Prime Minister or the Premier or the Mayor? Do they have the right to order us around like this?

What a great time to look at the Constitution! Teachers and other adults who may want a framework to help kids explore these questions, will find that there are numbers of age-appropriate resources available. Two of my favourites are both creations of the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust. One is a series of videos called That’s Not Fair! (for young kids) and the other is the Acorn Test (for kids over 12). .

In the interest of full disclosure, these resources were developed during the period I was director of Education for the Trust -- which means I have used these questions with hundreds of kids from grade 2 through grade 12. And they never fail to elicit some very vibrant discussion.

Firstly, let’s simply ask why. Why are the schools closed? Is that fair?

What is the purpose of closing all the schools? Is trying to keep us from contracting a serious disease a good enough reason to make us lose out on some of our education? Is it a good enough reason to keep us from seeing our friends?

Could there be a different or better way to achieve our goal? (Vaccines and treatments for the disease are not yet available. Will we think differently if and when they are?)

These are all matters of opinion. Let’s talk about whether students should be permitted to choose to go out and risk their health, or whether they should be forced to stay home to protect their own health and that of their teachers, friends, and families.

Our second question is -- will it work? While we all hope we are going to achieve a good outcome (or maybe a less bad one), we honestly do not yet have enough evidence to know the answer to this very important question. We can look at data from other countries that are beginning to let people back into the workplaces (none yet back to school as of this writing) but we don’t know if there will be another outbreak in those places. Nor do we know if recovery from COVID-19 actually confers immunity. Can you get it a second or third time? Is it like the common cold, some forms of which are also coronaviruses, or like the measles, which generally confers immunity after vaccine or infection?

Now for our most important question: What else will it do? What can happen when no one is in school? What are some of the side effects we are seeing – or are likely to see soon?

Each province and territory is obliged by law to educate its young people. We are guaranteed a right to an education by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.  Some teachers are sending out 5 hours of “busy work” each week; some are teaching using technologies such as Zoom. When we look back on this time, will these constitute an adequate degree of education? What if rural students don’t have access to the same education that urban students have? What if some students don’t have access to a computer? Does this become an issue of equality?

There are reports that child abuse is rising. What happens to children for whom school is their “safe space?”  What happens if teachers and other caregivers are not there to report the signs of abuse they find? Are we protecting our vulnerable children and respecting their rights?

We don’t, or don’t yet know the answers to most of these questions—but this should not stop us from asking them. Yes, our rights and freedoms are being severely curtailed right now, but if we don’t get into the habit of teaching our young people to ask the hard questions, it is going to be very difficult to get them back if and when this pandemic is finally over.