Earlier this year, I was feeling incredibly optimistic. The end of the pandemic looked like it might actually be in sight, as vaccines were rolled out across the country more quickly than expected and case numbers were steadily decreasing. This is finally going to be over, I thought, feeling comforted by the news for the first time in ages. After a long winter, I was ready for a double-vax summer and felt confident that we were headed towards a slightly more normal school year.
Instead, anxiety and frustration have taken over again as the Delta variant has caused case numbers to surge and there is no clear plan to keep kids safe from this highly contagious variant when they head back to school.
We’ve heard the Delta variant will “find the unvaccinated”—but right now that includes millions of Canadian children who are too young to get the vaccine. Meanwhile, thousands of kids are being hospitalized with the Delta variant in the U.S. and paediatric cases are surging. It is not yet clear if the Delta variant itself is more dangerous to kids or it’s simply causing more hospitalizations because it’s so much more contagious (and therefore, a lot more kids are getting it). To be honest, I’m not sure how much the distinction matters to me because either way, kids are at higher risk than they were before. Children with asthma and other chronic conditions are particularly vulnerable. This isn’t fear-mongering—it’s factual information that cannot be ignored, particularly as schools reopen with minimal protections in place. I worry about my youngest child, who has an autoimmune condition. How can I possibly send him back to a crowded classroom when none of his peers are vaccinated and some of their parents are not?
Keeping either of my kids home from school would be crushing to their mental health (and their education), but sending them feels like consciously putting them at risk. And yet, that’s what I’m going to do, for lack of a better option. How are we still in this position, as parents? Why don’t we have better choices? At this point in the pandemic, we know what’s going to reduce the risk of transmission. Is it too much to ask that the government take basic precautions to keep children safe in this, the third school year impacted by the pandemic? Is it crazy to want my children to receive an education without being put at increased risk? If schools get shut down again due to a lack of preventative measures by the provincial government, I am going to lose my shit—and I won’t be the only one.
What frustrates me personally is how arbitrary many of the in-school measures in Ontario seem to be. According to the new guidelines, schools can hold assemblies and mix cohorts for programs like reading buddies and extracurricular activities. Some students will eat lunch in cafeterias with multiple cohorts. They can play high contact sports indoors. Many will mix with other cohorts during before or after school care. Buses will run at full capacity.
While the province has ignored expert medical recommendations like smaller class sizes and made minimal efforts to improve ventilation in Ontario classrooms, Ontario’s back-to-school plan dictates that kids should continue to sit in single-file, forward-facing rows to reduce the potential for transmission. And yet, those forward-facing desks are typically less than two metres apart due to space restrictions—and more so, every kid in the classroom takes their mask off to eat several times a day. With an airborne virus, how are we expected to believe that limiting our kids’ ability to interact with their peers in a classroom is helpful but having large groups of unmasked kids eating together is fine? It doesn’t add up.
I’m all for policies that legitimately reduce the risk of spreading of the virus—masking and cohorting, for example—but so much of what’s being prescribed seems to be little more than optics. There’s little comfort to be taken from directional arrows in the halls when the kids are playing high contact sports and eating lunch together. It’s smoke and mirrors. Our best protection seems to be good luck.
Kids are going to get COVID in schools. Best case scenario, those kids get mild symptoms and recover quickly. The worst case scenario is that kids will become seriously ill. As case numbers rise, the likelihood of the latter increases. And how many classrooms are going to be shut down in the meantime? How many kids will be sent home to isolate for ten days because they’ve had a classroom exposure? This isn’t just about kids getting sick; it’s also about keeping schools open and kids in class, which might not be possible when a super contagious virus is circulating. The idea that schools might close again this year is mind blowing. Another shutdown would be devastating for families. I feel defeated just thinking about it.
I’m frustrated because children deserve better—all children, not just the ones whose parents’ can afford to send them to private schools with smaller classes and world-class ventilation systems. I’m thinking about kids with intellectual disabilities who cannot wear masks and are even more vulnerable. Schools should have been one of the government’s top priorities from day one. Not only do kids need school for education and their mental health (and in some cases, personal safety and/or food security), parents need school so they can work. We cannot expect the economy to recover if schools keep shutting down. Women in particular are suffering from burnout or financial stress, having left the workforce in astounding numbers, and we cannot keep going like this.
I’m ready to immunize my children as soon as a vaccine is approved for their age group, but we aren’t there yet. Their protection, like all children, currently relies on the collective decision-making of the adults in their lives: parents, educators, communities and the government. When children are put at risk, it’s often because one or more of these groups has failed them. This includes parents, educators and/or other community members who refuse to get vaccinated, won’t wear a mask and reject other public health recommendations.
The provincial government has to do more to protect kids and support families. They need to put kids first, and that means keeping schools open. To achieve this, we need measures in place to reduce the likelihood of transmission in our communities: smaller class sizes, improved ventilation in schools, classroom policies that work cohesively instead of contradicting each other. Parents, educators and medical experts have been begging for these things from day one, and it’s time we were heard.
But at this point, that’s not enough. We also need to restrict access to nonessential public spaces to vaccinated individuals only—this means indoor dining, movie theatres, gyms, concerts, etc.—for as long as necessary to curb community transmission, which leads to transmission in schools. The expected announcement of mandatory vaccinations for education workers is encouraging. Most of the teachers I know jumped at the chance to get vaccinated, but those who chose not to are putting kids (and their fellow educators) at risk.
As schools reopen, they need to stay open—safely. We cannot walk into another shutdown or virtual school nightmare. No matter what the next few months look like, our children have to be the government’s first priority. They should have been all along, but it’s better late than never.