An Ontario school board is urging parents to not make assumptions about the new coronavirus that could stoke xenophobia and racism against the Chinese community.
Following the discovery of two case of the virus in Toronto, thousands of parents signed a petition calling on the York Region District School Board to keep students whose family have visited China home from school for 17 days. (The virus outbreak began last month in Wuhan in the country’s Hubei province.)
The petition also demands that schools keep track of these students’ travels and inform other parents so they can decide whether to pull their kids out of class.
In response to the petition, board chair Juanita Nathan and education director Louise Sirisko have written to parents advising them that such requests run the risk of “demonstrating bias and racism,” even when made in the name of safety.
“What we’re trying really to get at is to [make sure] this situation is not giving rise to any inadvertent racism or any of those things that we could single out a community at this time,” Nathan told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Tuesday.
“I think the parents may be overly cautious and very anxious. I don’t think they need to at this moment.”
The online petition, circulating among parents in the region north of Toronto that has a large Chinese population, also calls on schools to ask students whose families have recently travelled to China to “self-quarantine.”
Nathan has rejected this call. She also said there is no need for students to wear masks.
“Wearing a mask really singles out some kids in the classroom when they don’t need to and that’s what we’re addressing at the moment — just having those conversations to give knowledge to the parents why they don’t need to at this moment,” Nathan said.
“Wearing a mask really helps you when you are sick, but if you’re not sick and all the kids in the classroom are not sick, you don’t need to be wearing that.”
There have been more than 4,500 cases of the new coronavirus in China, fuelling concerns about human-to-human transmission.
But Canada’s top public health official said Monday that the risk to Canadians remains minimal.
The school board said that while the virus originated in a Chinese city, it’s important that it not be seen as a “Chinese virus.”
“At times such as this, we must come together as Canadians and avoid any hint of xenophobia, which in this case can victimize our East Asian Chinese community,” the letter said.
“Situations such as these can regrettably give rise to discrimination based on perceptions, stereotypes and hate.”
Activist warns of racist backlash over coronavirus
Meanwhile, a mother and activist who spoke with CBC News on Tuesday said Canada’s Chinese community needs to brace itself for a racist backlash over the coronavirus.
Terri Chu said her warning is based on what she experienced during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.
“A lot of us have memories of what happened during SARS, the backlash of that to the Chinese community,” Chu told CBC News.
“At least in my circle of friends — we’re mothers now — it’s a little concerning about what may or may not happen in the school yard — what our kids might be exposed to.
“We’re seeing it from a different perspective. We experienced one thing, and now we’re afraid of having that repeat to the next generation,” Chu added.
Chu said the way a lot of people are reacting to the coronavirus is grounded in fear.
“People just say whatever comes to mind because they are grounded in fear and that’s what we don’t want to see our children be on the receiving end of.”
The mother and activist also supported the school board’s decision to push back against the calls to keep some students away from school.
“I’m really glad that the school board was pushing back on that because if it’s not a helpful recommendation, then why are you putting students through this?
“We don’t want to put students through something as traumatic as a quarantine when it’s not necessary,” Chu said.