I live in the Washington, DC area and our school year will be entirely online until February at the earliest. Parents are stressed about it. Most schools in Canada, on the other hand, are planning to resume in-class teaching in September. And guess what? Parents are stressed about that too.
The one thing we can all agree on is that everything sucks right now.
Not being able to travel to see family sucks. Not being able to go out and be around people at restaurants or theatres sucks. And having to choose between keeping your kids at home for months on end or risk exposing them to a novel virus really and truly sucks.
So what can we do to mitigate this suck factor?
I’ve noticed the one thing that muddles the thought process for me—that makes me flail wildly between making a calm and measured risk assessment and breathing frantically into a paper bag—is that there are two ways of looking at this. I think we all do this. We can be public health-minded and take stock of the number of cases in our area, including the risk to the general community and the health care system, and weigh that against the physical/social/emotional/educational losses that will impact children when schools are closed. But we also have to think about the health and well-being of our own families, and that can be far scarier if you live with anyone who is at a higher risk—or even if you just tend to worry more! Being worried for your kids is legit, too. Pass the paper bag.
Of course it makes sense to be scared about sending your kids to school in a pandemic since we all know schools are like a brush fire for germs in general. And we really don’t know how much kids can spread COVID to teachers, custodians, one another or their families.
It also makes sense to be dreading the idea of a virtual school year with every ounce of your being. Ask me how I know. Whaaa! I’m bracing for the relentless stress of trying to balance any sort of other work with keeping my kids on target for school, making sure they get outdoors for exercise and trying to give them safe social opportunities. The younger the kids, the worse it is for the parents. The older the kids, the more potential there is for them to be missing out on critical components of their education. And it’s impossible to overstate the importance of being around peers, especially for those kids who don’t get to see many friends outside of school.
I have heard many Canadian parents say things like, “Why have we been social distancing for all this time if we’re just going to sabotage it by opening schools?”
I have heard American parents say, “Why did we shut everything down for months and stay locked in our homes if we still can’t send our kids to school?”
There’s a good reason for the difference, of course. Most of the biggest American school districts aren’t reopening in September like their Canadian counterparts because the US is simply in bad shape right now. The coronavirus is rampant in much of the United States while it is well controlled in Canada. And there are reasons for that, too, (ahem, Trump), but we won’t get into those right now.
But even though the COVID situation is very different on either side of the border, news of outbreaks in American summer camps and schools still frightens Canadian parents. There was a viral Facebook post written by a mom from Fairfax County, Virginia that I saw shared by several friends a couple of weeks ago. That mom argued passionately against sending children and teachers into an unknown situation. And it resonated with parents in both countries. Since then, however, Fairfax County (which is also in the DC area) and the other school districts where I am have all decided to start the year virtually as the number of cases ticked higher in the region. And as cases dropped lower in most of Canada, schools are preparing to reopen.
Here’s what I think
It’s a good thing that schools in Canada are reopening. It’s good for the children, their parents and, yes, the economy. It’s especially good for families who would have no choice but to lose out on wages to stay home with their kids or to leave young children in the care of older siblings, effectively creating a generation of full-time latch key kids.
But I am worried that many school boards are being thrust into taking an all-or-nothing approach. Anything short of full-time school is obviously still very hard for working parents and a logistical nightmare to establish. But do you know what else screws with parents’ ability to focus on their jobs? Living with the possibility that your kid could be exposed to COVID at any time and the entire family might need to quarantine at best and fall very ill at worst. Or having the entire school need to shut down for weeks on end. Or having the entire experiment fail completely and winding up exactly where we were last spring.
Other countries have seemingly tamped out the coronavirus only to have it flare up again (like Japan and Australia, for example), and it would be naive and dangerous to not expect that to happen in Canada too. That doesn’t mean there can’t be school, but it does mean the governments and school boards had better be putting layers upon layers of contingency plans in place.
One of those contingencies might be a part-time in-person school which allows for small cohorts and decreased exposure to any outbreaks. Our school board here had developed a hybrid model that would have had in-person classes capped at 15 students who attended school twice a week and learned at home the other days. Masks were to be mandatory for all ages and they were planning to have a gradual return to in-person classes, a few classes at a time, to better be able to troubleshoot difficulties. Much about this plan still sucked. As we already established, everything sucks right now. But it would at least have allowed my kids to get out of the house and sit in a room with peers a couple of days a week. Psychologically, emotionally and socially, it would have been so much better than staying at home.
If I were in Canada today, I would want to know how my school board plans on dealing with potential outbreaks. Could there be a graduated start to the school year? Could a part-time, hybrid plan be put in place if we hit a certain threshold of cases? Can there be clear and transparent public health guidelines shared with parents about what happens if cases increase? Is there a plan for a more comprehensive virtual curriculum in case the entire thing goes wrong? How are parents going to know when or how long to keep their children home if they seem sick? Will there be rapid testing available to children and families in every community? Will public health be contact tracing every case and alerting the schools? And for the love of god, can the provinces please open their wallets and give the schools as much as they need to provide as safe an environment and as sound an education as is possible?
I know my friends and family in Canada will be anxious and worried this September.
I hope beyond hope that worry will prove to be needless. But when you do find yourself reaching for that paper bag to breathe into, think of me and my husband and my three children all trapped at home trying to work day in and day out for as far as the eye can see.
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