Nineteen weeks. That is the exact length of time that my kids have been out of school (but who’s counting)? Nineteen weeks where, like all families around the world with children, we’ve done our best as a family to adapt to the crazy realities of a global pandemic. And you know what? Although it hasn’t been even remotely easy, like many families, we’ve made things work under extraordinary circumstances. That’s what parents do: we find a way to make things work.
Now, as we collectively ponder the question of whether our children can safely return to schools, we find ourselves in what feels like an impossible predicament. If schools open, some families will have no choice but to send their children back to school if they want to keep a roof over their heads. As the pandemic days become longer, more dismal, and as businesses struggle to keep their doors open, workplace flexibility is becoming more limited. Many parents are faced with the situation that they either need to quit their jobs, or take care of their kids, because doing both is no longer feasible or sustainable – whether it be from a lack of workplace flexibility, a lack of financial feasibility, or both. These are choices that no parent should have to make.
While I don’t claim to be even close to an expert on public health, I do believe that where I live (Toronto, Canada), that our public health and medical leaders have managed this crisis exceptionally well. Our curve has flattened, but our COVID-19 cases are certainly nowhere near zero. For the most part, I feel that our community has also handled this crisis well: people have accepted that our New Normal involves extra care with hygiene, physical distancing, and wearing masks inside public places. Yet, we don’t seem to be resting on the laurels of a relatively low case count – we know those numbers could change at any minute if we are not careful, and parents here are rightfully concerned with the risks of opening schools.
As early September looms and our school boards, provincial health officials, and political leaders are desperately trying to find a solution to an unprecedented predicament, I don’t know what the right answers are, but my opinion on the matter remains firm: I believe that schools either need to fully open if it is safe to do so, or not open at all. For me, it needs to be all or nothing – and when I say “nothing,” I mean no schooling at all. No distance learning. Nothing. Nada.
I’m not interested in my kids taking part in distance learning again – not because I’m lazy, and not because I don’t have the utmost respect for the distance learning curriculum that our educators have worked their asses off to provide in these unprecedented times (believe me – I have an immense amount of respect for our educators), but because the distance learning that we did in our house from April to June felt both unsustainable and ineffective. My reality, as working mom of a 4 and 6 year old, was that I had to be hands-on with my kids’ curriculums (you can’t exactly hand them a piece of paper or a tablet at that age and say “figure it out”). The bigger reality is that, quite frankly, my kids will never learn nearly as much from me as they will from their teachers. Not even close. My 6-year-old was a Grade 1 French Immersion student this spring, so with my sloppy knowledge of Canadian French, you can imagine that I spent a lot of time on Google Translate. My 4-year-old was a Junior Kindergarten student – which may seem like small potatoes, but, that was the year that my older child learned to read and write. My 4-year-old really wasn’t interested in mommy being his teacher, at all. He needed me to be his mom. I tried my best with distance learning, but on most days, the battle didn’t feel worth it.
One afternoon, as I was preparing lunch for my kids, I received a phone call from my 4-year-old’s early childhood educator. She was involved with my son’s special needs counsellor who was working with him the previous year, and was well aware that a social environment was critical to his learning and development. She asked me how distance learning was going, to which I said “To be honest? Not great. I’m trying to teach him even one thing a day, and I’m trying to choose my battles, because the reality is, he learns much better with you guys, in a classroom environment.” I was relieved when she told me “I’m hearing a lot of the same feedback from other parents.” She encouraged me that doing my best was enough, and that first and foremost, being our kids’ safe space in these crazy times was the most important thing. (Did I mention I love educators? Let me say it again: thank you, educators, I love you).
As we await the decision of what will happen with our kids this fall, the Ministry of Education in Ontario has asked all 72 of Ontario’s school boards to prepare plans for three possible scenarios – a full-time return to in-person learning, virtual classes for all, or a hybrid model that combines the two. Right out of the gate, I would like to say with firm conviction that we need to scrap the hybrid model. The hybrid model will potentially involve half-days with smaller class sizes, intense sanitization, and potentially attendance either every second day or every other week. I don’t know a single working parent that has even the slightest possibility of making that work – especially the teachers themselves. What will teachers do with their kids if they are going into school for half days?
Because workplace flexibility is not freely given by all employers, sending kids to school for half-days would force many families to find alternate childcare arrangements for the time that they are not in school. I don’t think you need to be an expert in public health to understand that finding childcare outside of a child’s school peer group will increase potential virus exposure. If the intent of reducing class sizes is to physically distance and minimize exposure, doesn’t all that effort go out the window as soon as kids leave school and enter a different environment with a different set of kids? This idea of partial schooling does not seem feasible in the least.
In our own house, my husband lost his workplace flexibility about nine weeks into the pandemic. His business was considered essential, and although he can quite reasonably do his job from home, his boss insists that he be in the office. It’s not ideal at all, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt, so we need to make it work. For the past 10 weeks, I have been at home with the kids solo, on top of doing my own job. As a self-employed worker (I work as a realtor in Toronto), I have the luxury of being able to do my office work from home – oftentimes to the tune of random shouts of “Quiet, kids!! Mommy needs to make a phone call!!!” However, the other half of my business involves (safe, physically distanced) “peopling.” I need to see people, in person. I need to show them houses when technology isn’t available or ideal. I need to evaluate houses. So, when our public health experts told us that we were able to safely increase our social circles to up to 10 people, we increased our social circle to anyone that could possibly babysit our kids when I need to leave the house to work. Again, not ideal – but these are the challenges faced by many working parents with kids. We have no choice but to make it work.
Like many parents, I would love nothing more than for it to be safe for schools to fully reopen in September. Our kids have been the unspoken heroes of this pandemic: they miss their friends dearly, and they miss their routines. However, if it is not safe for schools to fully reopen, I’m not interested in anything less. I’m not interested in partial schooling; I’m not interested in any schooling at all. If my kids “fall behind” academically but they remain healthy, that’s all that matters. Once schools do reopen, if my kids need to repeat a year of school, that’s absolutely fine with me. With all of the hats that parents have had to wear during this pandemic, the first priority hat I wear is being my kids’ emotional support and safe space, and the second priority hat I wear is running my business to help keep food on the table. Distance learning is not a hat I want to wear again, and I don’t think my kids want me to wear that hat either.