June has always been a nice time of year for my family. The school year is coming to an end, the weather is lovely and a carefully orchestrated mix of summer camp and family road trips are laid out on the calendar. The kids look forward to going out for ice cream on report card day and I look forward to a more relaxed pace of life (or at least the odd glass of rosé on a patio).
Cue the year 2020 – proposed slogans, “Cancel your plans” and/or “WTF is happening.”
As I write this, we are in week 15 of an unexpected school closure due to a global pandemic that, despite cautious reopenings, is very much an ongoing thing. My kids rarely leave our street, let alone go to school or extracurriculars, and millions of parents are scrambling to work, homeschool and maintain their sanity. You know this already, of course, because you’ve been living it for over three months now.
New case numbers in my region are fairly low right now, but I’m still acting with an abundance of caution. My mom lives with us, I have asthma and one of my kids is immunocompromised. A case of COVID-19 can be completely asymptomatic or incredibly serious, and I’m not willing to take that chance with my family’s health. (I recognize that as a person who has semi-independent, school-aged kids and the ability to work remotely, I have the privilege of making this choice.) We bailed on summer camp (the ones that hadn’t already been cancelled, that is) and plan on riding out the summer just like we’ve spent the last few months but with better weather. It won’t be easy, but we’ll make it work.
But what happens when September comes and it’s “back to school” in some way, shape or form? How do families stay healthy if kids go back to a physical classroom, and how on earth do we manage if they don’t?
Experts have made it clear that a second wave of COVID-19 is not only possible, but it’s also to be expected. What remains to be seen is exactly when and how hard we’re hit again, and what impact this has on schools, businesses and public spaces. I can handle the malls shutting down again, but I’m not sure how my husband and I can continue to work full-time jobs while parenting and facilitating school work. It’s exhausting, it’s completely unsustainable and I sort of suck as a teaching assistant. And yet, if a second wave arrives as anticipated…that might be our best option?
We may not have had COVID-19 but like most families, we aren’t getting through this pandemic unscathed. My kids’ education is suffering, and they miss their friends. I worry about their mental health as well as my own. My sleep patterns are a mess because I’m up working half the night in order to hit deadlines and maintain my income. We’re all coping with a ‘new normal’ that changes week to week and the general anxiety of living through a pandemic. Other families are dealing with serious economic stress or mental health crises. We are all fighting our own battles and in many ways, a return to school is key.
Here in Ontario, school boards have been asked to prepare for three possible scenarios for the fall: one wherein kids go back in school for regular class instruction with strict public health measures in place (this was recently recommended in a recent report by Sick Kids Hospital); a mixed model wherein students attend class on alternating days or weeks while cohorted into smaller groups (this method would involve home learning on days when students are not in class); or an online-only learning model involving live instruction.
Basically, schools are being told to get ready for anything – and when September comes, the state of the pandemic will dictate which path is taken. It’s a lot to process, and it’s all up in the air.
I read these options and honestly, I don’t know how to feel. I want my kids back in a classroom, but I want them there safely. I worry about the negative impact that long term social isolation has on their mental health, but also about their mental well-being in a school that’s been stripped of all toys, books, comfort items and personality. I worry about how a lack of childcare impacts working parents – particularly those with limited resources – and about the actual virus, especially if case numbers go back to where they were a few weeks ago. You can control your own family’s behaviour and risk management, but you can’t control the behaviour of your kids’ teachers and classmates.
It’s a leap of faith.
Schools may open their doors again in September, but in many ways, it will be a different world. There will be physical distancing rules to enforce in the classroom, on the playground and everywhere in between. Children may have to get used to symptom screening processes, following tape arrows in the hall, limited movement throughout the day and sitting alone. We don’t know what outdoor play will look like, or if classes like gym and art will even exist. There likely won’t be assemblies, team sports, school clubs, choir or other group activities. Drop off and pick up will be careful, controlled events. There will be additional daily challenges for kids with anxiety, limited impulse control, special needs or behavioural issues. Families with immunocompromised kids or adults will have extra burdens to consider.
A return to the classroom might be doable, but it certainly won’t be what it was. And what if the second wave is more than we’ve anticipated, and we don’t even have the option?
There are families that simply cannot survive without school. Home learning is riddled with problems and inequities, and an alternating schedule is going to be a nightmare for working parents. Getting back into classrooms is key for a thriving society – but come September, I’m not convinced it’s going to be right for everyone.
I’m hopeful about the fall, but I’m also realistic – and above all else, I’m a mom who is going to protect my kids’ physical and mental health no matter what.
At the end of the day, I’ll do what’s best for them. I’m just not sure what that means yet.