School-age

Every back-to-school option terrifies me

I'm desperate for an end to the work-from-home/homeschool circus but I just can't come up with a good scenario for the fall.

We did it! After months of enduring lockdown, and failed attempts at e-learning, we’ve successfully reduced community spread of COVID-19. 

The world is starting to look somewhat normal again. I can go out for dinner, have a haircut, and get my nails done. While these possibilities almost fool me into thinking school will open full-time in September and everything will be fine, I’m also battling my mother-bear instinct that it’s just not safe.

Don’t get me wrong, like all parents of young kids, I’m praying for an end to breastfeeding through Zoom meetings with half-clothed older children vying for attention, handing out iPads, painting rocks at the dining room table, and handing out iPads yet again. But if and when schools open, it’s inevitable that groups of kids will congregate, teachers will be unable to enforce physical distancing—especially amongst younger kids—and there will likely be a supply shortage of PPE and sanitizers. If schools have difficulty controlling lice outbreaks, how can they possibly be equipped to handle outbreaks of COVID-19? 

The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto has laid out a number of recommendations for reopening schools, including cohorting, PPE for staff, and adequate cleaning supplies. A report released by the Toronto District School Board on July 15th indicates that, in order to meet these recommendations, the board would have to add approximately 2500 additional teachers and 250 million dollars to its operating budget. 

But our public schools have been underfunded for decades and many schools in Toronto are housed in outdated buildings with poor air circulation, and bathrooms that, as far as I can tell, have not been updated since I was in elementary school. Our schools can hardly provide enough levelled readers, novels, and textbooks to go around—what will happen when the sanitizer and Lysol wipes run out? 

There’s a very real possibility of COVID outbreaks at school in September, and this keeps me up at night. There are just so many unanswered questions—how will outbreaks be handled? What will contact tracing look like? Before schools were closed in New York, many teachers contracted COVID, and 70 people who worked in schools died. What happens when a teacher gets sick? Will there be supply teachers or will entire cohorts and their families be quarantined? What if one of my children gets COVID? What if one of us gets really sick? What if they give it to their grandparents? What if teachers or students die? 

The problem is, I’ve racked my brain and I just can’t come up with a good scenario for the fall.

A full reopening, which many parents are pushing for, would likely be a safety risk to children, educators, and support staff without significant resources devoted to preparation and funding—which I’m skeptical is going to happen.

But we’ve already seen school boards fall short with remote learning, which depends on both access to technology—many families do not have access to a WIFI connection or devices for their children—as well as intensive parent involvement and support, especially for younger children. My six-year-old son, a usually happy and engaged kid, could not be motivated to work through the assignments posted to his kindergarten Google classroom, and by the time his teacher started class video meets during the first week of June—for 20 minutes, twice weekly— he was so disconnected from school that he acted out—making fart noises and trying to moon the camera— and then had meltdowns afterwards. 

And a hybrid return to school— either alternating days, or a two days on and then three days off approach, as has been proposed by various school boards across Canada as one likely scenario for this September—is flawed in its claims than this model will limit the spread of COVID—instead, it will increase exposure through alternative childcare on no-school days. In addition to the lack of consistency for kids, many of whom thrive on routine, this approach leaves families scrambling for childcare on days when their kids aren’t in school. Some will find nannies or ECEs, others will devise childcare or homeschool pods with neighbours. But in many situations a parent, often the mother, will be required to stay home. 

I was on the phone with a girlfriend a few days ago and she was also enraged. “So let me get this straight,” she said, “I can now take my kids to an interactive Van Gogh exhibit, and yes, finally, to a wading pool, but they’re only going to get to go to school every second day? How does this even make sense? How am I supposed to work?” The simple answer may not be one that we want to hear. 

A recent study from the University of British Columbia highlights this employment gender gap and notes that it’s most pronounced for mothers of school-aged children, and calls on policy makers to prioritize a safe and funded reopening of schools and childcare or a funded and supported caregiving leave policy. Statistics Canada also recently released the results of a survey where 80 percent of parents of school-aged children report being concerned or very concerned about continuing to balance childcare, school, and work. Even when equipped with all of this information, our governments have failed to focus on an economic reopening plan that puts the safety and welfare of families and children at its centre. Women shouldn’t be forced to choose between their careers and their children’s safety.

Our children shouldn’t have to continue to suffer emotionally, academically, and socially, either. My daughter, who used to hold hands with other little girls and skip around the room gleefully during dance class, now needs me to stand beside her as she dances alone on her side of a chalk line, fearful of getting too close to other little girls. Instead of playing with his friends at recess, my son schleps his host of Winnie the Pooh stuffies—his new friends—around everywhere, pretending he is Christopher Robin. My son has also lost all of the gains he made in his first year of French immersion—how is he supposed to catch up with half time school?

I believe it is possible that, with enough funding and resources, a full reopening of schools could be done relatively safely, given the current downward trend in the number of community spread COVID cases in Canada. Instead of opening indoor bars and restaurants, which has the potential to cause more community spread, as we’ve already seen in districts throughout the United States, our government’s first priority should be getting our youngest children, for whom e-learning is grossly ineffective, back into classrooms full time. 

I desperately want to send my kids back to school this fall—our community school has been a warm, welcoming and enriching experience for our family, but I’m having a hard time imagining a scenario where it will be safe to do so come September. We were so excited for my daughter to have the best kindergarten teacher on earth, but how can I send her to junior kindergarten if her teacher can’t sing songs with the kids and looks scary and unwelcoming in a face mask and shield? 

Like many families, we are unsure what we will do come September, as we await further developments and plans from the government and school boards. And like many parents, I’m stuck between really wanting to send my kids back to school, even part time (both for their social and emotional health and mine), and simultaneously worrying about the very real health concerns that go alongside this choice. Even though September is only a few short weeks away, it’s still impossible to make a decision, and the mounting uncertainty is making me crazy.

What I do know, though, is that without safe childcare and school options, parents, and mostly mothers, are forced to make choices, under the extreme duress of COVID fatigue, that put their families at risk. Some parents will send their kids to school because they are fed up or have to work to support their families. Some will stay home because the health dangers outweigh financial needs. And some will continue the work-from-home/home-school circus, half-naked, on Zoom.

 

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