Usually around this time of year, I'm choosing between the unicorn or princess lunchbox. Velcro or lace-up kicks. Thankfully, my precocious 8-year-old son and free-spirited 5-year-old daughter aren’t too fussed about all the gear yet. When it comes to parenting, I'd call myself a type L — as in laid-back. I’m not a planner. I'm that mom frantically making lunches in the mornings while signing homework assignments and forms for ukulele lessons (it's a thing I swear) because I didn't plan the night before. But this fall is different. I have been thinking about back-to-school since before the summer even started. This year, every decision surrounding sending my kids back to in-person classes feels like life or death because quite frankly, it could be.
My "L" now has to stand for "level-up," whether I want it to or not. There's nothing laid back about the inconsistency and confusion that comes with back-to-school in a pandemic.
The Ontario Ministry of Education announced last month that all elementary schools will resume this fall with a regular school-day model, meaning students will be in attendance Monday to Friday with normal class sizes. The plan doesn't follow the physical-distancing recommendations put forward by Sick Kids Hospital. Toronto Public Health has also raised a number of concerns, and four of Ontario's major education unions, representing over 190,000 teachers and education workers, claim the current strategy "fails to meet legal health and safety requirements." From masks not mandated for kids under 10, to poor ventilation systems, there are a lot of red flags (yesterday, I Googled HVAC installs as I lay awake worrying about the air quality in my kids’ aging school building). With school just a few weeks away, we are still left with so much uncertainty about whether there is enough time and resources for a safe return to the classroom.
Am I choosing to send our children back to learning, growth and development or am I sending them off to a horrific social experiment?
Last week, I received two "Pre-Registration School Messenger" automated phone calls from the TDSB inquiring on the back-to-school intentions for my kids. The board is trying to gauge how many children will be returning to each classroom. They give you two options: In-person education at school or a fully remote learning model at home. The communication has been clear that once we select, there is no flip flopping from in-classroom to remote learning or vice versa. As I hit the keypad to "press 1" for the in-school option, my heart started beating out of my chest. A wave of guilt, anger, confusion, and anxiety washed over me.
Am I choosing to send our children back to learning, growth and development or am I sending them off to a horrific social experiment? If our government has found a way for adults to return safely to the workplace and for the safe re-opening of restaurants, gyms, hair and nail salons, why are our children left with so much confusion and uncertainty?Why are parents relegated to automated “options” as if we’re ordering a pizza?
Don’t get me wrong, I wish the notion of sending my kids to school was as basic as a plain cheese slice. And to be completely honest, my initial gut reaction about the return to school was joyous relief because for the last five months, I have been in survival mode and it’s not sustainable. But now, I’m dealing with conflicting emotions. My young kids did not do well with remote learning. They desperately miss their friends and teachers. They are regressing socially and acting out with temper tantrums and crying fits. My son just got prescription eyeglasses this month — the optician told us she's seen a spike in kids requiring glasses because children aren't meant to sit for hours in front of a screen.
Even in the dog days of summer while wading in the kiddie pool or running through the sprinkler, my children ask almost daily: "When can we go back to school?" They crave human connection. As a parent, I am craving some sense of calm. Sure, I've gotten things done — by waking up two hours before the house and going to bed two hours later or by juggling Zoom calls on mute while breaking up fights between my kids and wearing more hats than I can balance on my wavering head — but at what cost? I’m an epileptic and I have been doubling up on my medication at least once a week for fear of a seizure because I have not slept enough and often feel fuzzy-headed from all the stress. Something has to give.
That sinking feeling is layered by the mom-guilt I take on when reading other parents posting online about "making the right choice" for their kid's safety and keeping them out of school. But unlike many of those parents, I don't have the economic luxury to drop out of the workforce for the next year to become a homeschool teacher or to form a "pandemic pod." Hiring a nanny, private tutors or teachers to educate my children in a private setting is something I simply cannot afford. Remote learning is not an option for our family and still, we are one of the lucky ones.
This pandemic has exposed the glaring disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Recent race-based data has shown that lower income and racialized communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. While less than 30 per cent of Torontonians have household earnings under $50,000, that group makes up over 50% of COVID cases. Similarly, members of the Black community account for 21% of reported infections in the city, though they make up only 9% of the population. When we peel back all the layers, we see regardless of race or socioeconomics, it is predominantly women who are suffering the consequences of this crisis. And we’re the ones being the most heavily judged for our so-called “choices” when it comes to back-to-school.
As challenging as it has been, I have been able to work from home. I can only imagine the stress of those parents who are essential workers and are risking their lives day in and out. What about the single parents? Or parents of children with special needs? The parents who have lost their jobs and parents in toxic relationships? How are they coping? There are parents who are just thinking about how to pay this month's rent or keep the lights on a little longer. They don’t have the luxury of weighing their “options” in September.
I wish I knew for sure that our kids will be okay, or that we, the parents, will also get through this with our sanity intact, but I don't. All I know is that this year, back-to-school certainly doesn't feel like the most wonderful time of the year.