“Well, my day is going to be poop, now!” said my seven-year old, looking up at me in disgust. It was noon, which meant his babysitter was done her shift for the day, and he was now stuck with me and his dad for the afternoon (the horror!). A few days earlier, my husband and I had taken the plunge and asked our pre-pandemic teen babysitters that live down the street if they’d be willing to come by each morning to hang out with our seven- and nine-year-old boys for a few hours. (Their 12-year-old sister is pretty laid up with schoolwork during the day.)
Believe me, we didn’t make the decision lightly. Having been holed up and keeping to ourselves since mid-March, allowing someone to come into our house and in close contact with our kids felt like a huge leap. But with both my husband and I working full-time from home, we weren’t able to give them the attention they needed—and it showed. There was whining, sadness, tantrums, frustration and they just didn’t want to do anything anymore. (Even I could barely muster excitement when I suggested we bake or do a craft.)
My kids don’t usually get excited for babysitters—they prefer Mom and Dad—but the change in their demeanor since the sitters started coming has been incredible to witness. (They are sisters, and they take turns watching my kids.) The shrieks of laughter coming from the basement or backyard (where we ask the sitters to stay in order to minimize their contact with the rest of the house) are music to my ears. I don’t have a clue what they’re doing down there, but those shrieks (and the “Aww, does she have to leave already?” every day at noon) are all I need to know that we made the right decision.
Since Day 1 of the stay-at-home order, I’ve been worried about the mental health effects of my kids being away from their peers, teachers and daycare leaders, and their regular routine. Still, I told myself that they are in a loving home, with parents who are able to engage with them in some capacity during the day, so they should weather this storm pretty well. But it’s clear they were suffering, at least to some degree. Now, even when the babysitter isn’t here, their moods are brighter and they look forward to the next day. And that helps my mental health, too.
When schools in Quebec started opening a few weeks back, I watched with a lump in my throat as principals took to YouTube to describe to students what to expect when they got back to class. Desks spaced apart. Lines in the hallway to show where you can stand. Closed libraries, gyms and playgrounds. Recess? Yes, as long as you stayed apart from your friends. I know why these measures are in place, but the prison-like environment made me fear the restrictions that would be placed on my kids when school here in Ontario opened, more than the virus itself. The few times we’ve let our kids have physically distanced visits with their friends, it’s just been a matter of time before they’ve crept closer and we’ve had to remind them to keep their six feet. Asking teachers to enforce that for months on end seems, frankly, unrealistic, and unlikely to create an environment where kids would flourish.
This past weekend, a group of doctors in Quebec spoke out about exactly that. Thirteen physicians posted an open letter, and hundreds more signed it, asking the government to relax some of the measures they’re taking to limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools and daycares—things like drawing squares on asphalt in school yards where kids are supposed to stay, alone, during recess, daycare providers policing two-metre separations between toddlers, while wearing masks and visors and camp counsellors not being allowed to help apply sunscreen or fill water bottles.
Here in Ontario, as in many parts of the country, we’re still waiting to find out what schools will look like in September. But I hope those in power are taking into account the unique needs of kids—for whom building relationships with others is a huge part of their education and development—into the equation. Those doctors in Quebec note that kids, for the most part, aren’t getting severely sick with coronavirus compared to older populations, and some research suggests that kids are not that likely to pass it on to others. But here’s where I get stuck. Because I’ve been following the research, and in reality, some kids do still get quite sick, and it’s not like it’s impossible for them to pass it on to someone who could end up getting severely ill. So how do you let kids be kids, while still protecting others?
The doctors who wrote the letter suggest that kids under 12 should not be required to physically distance or wear face masks, while adults wear transparent masks so that kids can see them smile and see their lips when they talk. According to this article, that’s similar to what’s happening in the Netherlands, where kids are not required to stay apart from each other, but teachers need to distance themselves from kids and other adults. But what if a kid falls down and needs comforting, or lunch cannot be eaten without some help opening a container?
Let’s be honest, even most kids will want to know there’s some protection when they go back to school. My boys, for example, and their babysitters, are very cautious about wiping things down (like board game pieces) between uses and keeping some distance, even if it’s not exactly six feet. A lot of this they’ve instituted on their own. After months of being told it’s unsafe to even pass someone too closely on the sidewalk, they were not naive enough to realize bringing these girls into our home wasn’t without risk.
That has to be the way forward though—taking tiny, calculated risks where there is benefit in doing so. But knowing the thought and fear that went into our decision to open ourselves up, just this teeny bit, I don’t envy those making the decision on how to safely reopen businesses, schools and daycares across the country. But I do hope the mental well-being of kids comes into their equation.