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A protestor outside a hospital holds a sign that says 'I know more than the scientists.'
Disregard for public health, like protests at hospitals challenging vaccine passports, seen at this event in September 2021 in Toronto, show schools need to expand how they teach what it means to be a responsible global citizen. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

In a pandemic, ignoring science affects everyone. Citizenship education can help ensure that doesn’t happen

Since early 2020, our way of life has changed dramatically. COVID-19 has transformed how we study, learn and work — even how we shop, eat and gather.

Throughout the pandemic, Canada has implemented individual and community-based measures to protect its citizens. While most Canadians have trusted and listened to the scientists and public health experts, too many have ignored the science — protesting mask wearing, social distancing and vaccination.

Those who have failed to comply with these protocols have prolonged the pandemic and put their fellow citizens at risk. This troubling issue requires attention and future action, including addressing it through education.

Responsible citizenship and education

Responsible citizenship is fundamental in a democratic society — and with it comes the responsibility to not engage in behaviour that endangers the health and well-being of neighbours.

Noted professors of citizenship education, Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne, tie good citizenship to an active democratic citizenry. They stress the importance of teaching about following the law and becoming a personally responsible citizen, engaging in civic affairs and becoming a participatory citizen, and challenging social inequities by becoming a justice-oriented citizen.

In recent years, as a result of growing global challenges — such as poverty, hunger, public health and climate change — the concept of responsible citizenship has expanded to include global belonging and commitment.

Global citizenship seeks to unite people within and across countries in common cause to bridge national divides to address seminal challenges facing the world. Global citizenship in many ways seeks to fulfil the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals designed to confront pressing global issues.

In schools, “global citizenship education” aims to provide students with the knowledge, skills and values to become responsible citizens and learn to address a range of generational challenges. Schools in several countries, including Canada, have started to recognize the importance of these educational goals. Several provinces, such as Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Québec, have integrated global citizenship education into their social studies curricula in the past few decades.

Canadian intergovernmental bodies representing every provincial ministry of education, including the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), have emphasized the importance of global citizenship education among other priorities. In its recent Pan-Canadian Systems-Level Framework on Global Competencies, CMEC laid out six global competencies for students: global citizenship and sustainability; critical thinking and problem solving; innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship; learning to learn and to be self-aware and self-directed; and collaboration.

A man in a face mask walks past a wall spraypainted with 'covid is a lie' and 'the news is the virus.'
After the COVID-19 pandemic, curriculum should engage students in discussions about how responses to public health messaging interact with being a responsible global citizen. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Contemplating post-pandemic citizenship

Despite these curricular trends, issues that have come to light in the pandemic have shown that the goals of global citizenship education must adapt.

These include the disregard for public health protocols, the undermining of science, the spread of misinformation and the lack of concern for others (particularly for seniors, who are more likely to get very ill with COVID-19, and for those with underlying health conditions).

Read more: The urgent need for media literacy in an age of annihilation

It is increasingly important that the next generation of Canadian students learn how to navigate the many increased challenges of a post-COVID-19 world. Research from the Center for Global Development noted that “the next pandemic could be much sooner and more severe than we think.”

In light of the lessons of COVID-19, schools across Canada should consider offering a social studies elective course that emphasizes post-pandemic values, including commitment to public health, empathy and compassion, self-sacrifice and a co-operative spirit. Such a “post-pandemic citizenship” education could help prepare the next generation of Canadians to promote the kind of values sometimes lacking during the pandemic.

Health literacy, compassion

First, the course should include issues of public health. It could, for example, use online tools and platforms to teach students health literacy. As noted by the World Health Organization, health literacy implies equipping people to “play an active role in improving their own health, engage successfully with community action for health, and push governments to meet their responsibilities in addressing health and health equity.”

Researchers from the Healthy Schools Lab at the University of Alberta noted that when education went online due to pandemic closures, provincial guidelines for at-home learning did not include a focus on health and physical education.

The course also could examine how other countries handled COVID-19 and prior epidemics or ask students to devise a plan for combating the next pandemic.

Students standing in a hallway in face masks.
Students should have the opportunity to devise plans to combat pandemics. (Shutterstock)

Second, there should be an emphasis on empathy and compassion, including its impact on positive health outcomes. In Canada, there have been efforts to impart empathy in the classroom and these efforts should continue. For example, Canadian educator Mary Gordon founded Roots of Empathy more than two decades ago. This program seeks to develop students’ emotional and social competencies, resulting in less aggression and bullying.

Read more: Strong relationships help kids catch up after 6 months of COVID-19 school closures

Self and community interest

At the same time, the course should stress self-sacrifice. From reviewing case studies on those who disregarded public health recommendations at the expense of others, to debating situations where collective responsibility should transcend individual self-interest, these lessons can be instructive.

For instance, the Winnipeg School Division recently released an Education for Sustainable Development Plan to teach students about collective responsibility in such areas as human rights, environmental protection and reducing poverty.

Studies of collective responsibility should include examining issues around equity due to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on marginalized communities in Canada.

Studying documents like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also can shed light on the critical role of government mitigation strategies in supporting the collective dignity and rights of citizens.

Collective good at stake

By embracing a co-operative spirit, students can appreciate local examples of community involvement, or consider when public and private sector institutions should collaborate for the good of society at home and abroad.

For instance, Toronto’s Bloorview School Authority, which provides school programs to children with special needs who are undergoing intensive therapies, has partnered with UNICEF Canada to raise funds for necessary school equipment for students in Malawi. A Bloorview teacher noted that the project, known as Kids in Need of Desks, helps students understand what it means to be global citizens in a pandemic. This is even as they deal with their own learning disruptions due to COVID-19 while managing other challenges.

This is just a starting point. Over time, Canadian schools will need to continue to re-examine and rewrite social studies curricula to groom the next generation of citizens for a post-pandemic world. The collective good and responsible citizenship are at stake.

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