'It's a no-win situation': These parents won't be sending their kids back to school
TORONTO -- Andrea Zakel-Farrow and her husband have decided to keep their six-year-old son at home this fall instead of sending him to school to start Grade 1.
While parents across the country cite a multitude of reasons for not sending their kids back to school, the Niagara Falls, Ont.-based former teacher says they can keep their son home because they both work from home. She added that doing so may protect others who don’t have the same option.
"Not making class sizes smaller… It's just a recipe for disaster," Zakel-Farrow told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Sunday. "I'm hoping that enough people like me who are able to keep their children home who can use their privilege to do so, so that those who can't have less kids in the class."
Anjum Khan, who lives in Mississauga, Ont., will not be sending her daughter back for senior kindergarten because she does not think the province’s plan does enough to address public safety measures including class sizes and physical distancing.
"Thirty kids in a room can't distance. Even if they found a way to do it, if they're going to keep it as 30 kids, they can't do it in that room so either they would need more space or less kids because they can't have it all," Khan said in a phone interview.
From concerns about class sizes to contracting COVID-19, some parents across Canada will not be sending their children back to school this fall.
While many parents said they would like to have their kids return to the classroom, they also said it should only be done if the schools are safe and prepared to handle the ever-changing coronavirus pandemic.
With the start of the school year fast approaching, parents across Canada shared their concerns with CTVNews.ca.
Erin Casey says the main reason why she will likely not be sending her three boys back to school in Barrie, Ont. is because of health concerns within their family.
Casey explained in a phone interview on Sunday that she and her husband have at-risk conditions for COVID-19 and may have to take certain precautions such as physical distancing at home or no hugging to maintain their health if their children return to school.
Casey says there is not enough evidence on how the coronavirus affects children to justify sending them back to school.
"By sending our children to school with very limited precautions and next to no [physical] distancing required at any age, we are taking a risk with our children’s lives and long-term health as there is far too much unknown on the long-term effects of COVID," Casey said.
Since all three of her sons were to attend new schools in the fall, Casey says she is concerned about them not being able to meet new kids. However, she said the health risks outweigh her other fears.
"What am I going to regret more -- if my one son has some long-term challenges health wise, or if they had a year where it was challenging socially? It's a no-win situation for parents but for us personally the bigger threat to us is health," Casey said.
Lachute, Que. resident Tina Chapman, whose nine-year-old son has autism and underlying health issues, told CTVNews.ca on Sunday she does not think it is safe for him to return to school.
Chapman also has an autoimmune disease, which puts her at risk if her son returns to school. Because of the family's health issues, Chapman explained that her son would have to wear a mask the entire time he is at school, which could affect his sensory issues.
Additionally, because Chapman’s son requires a teaching aid in school, he would have to be separated from the rest of the students since Quebec's back-to-school plan requires staff to stay two metres away from kids.
"It just wouldn't [make] any sense for him to be there if he's going to be isolated from the entire school population. There's just too much mental anguish on him that's already added there," Chapman said.
Chapman is trying to find safe ways for her son to socialize outside of the classroom as she is concerned about the development of his social skills however, she says he previously did well with online learning.
Krystal Gross, of Winnipeg, Man., told CTVNews.ca that she was initially planning on sending her 13-year-old daughter back to school while keeping her six-year-old home. Now, as cases continue to spike in the province, she is considering keeping both kids home.
Gross acknowledged that some parents who work full-time have to send their kids to school when they are sick; however, she worries her children may come home with COVID-19.
Gross, who has been taking care of her father following his heart attack in January, said her children would not be allowed to see their grandfather if they return to the classroom.
"I'm not comfortable letting them see him. Even if there is nothing there, I don't want to put him at risk or my mom or my mother-in-law or any family members that could get it easily," Gross said in a phone interview on Monday.
While older kids may understand the health concerns around the novel coronavirus, Gross says younger kids don't get it.
"I can barely get my youngest daughter to wear a mask for the 15 minutes that it takes to run into Walmart, and I'm supposed to trust that the school is going to keep them safe and make sure they're monitoring all these kids at once?" Gross asked.
CLASS SIZES AND SANITATION
Khan told CTVNews.ca on Sunday that the differences between the safety measures issued for the public and the ones issued for schools are concerning.
"Where we are being told our bubble should remain to 10 people and not to crowd in indoor spaces, how can officials then ask us to disregard this when it comes to that which is the most precious to us? I don't understand why the same wouldn't apply to kids," Khan said.
Mandy Bolduc of Cambridge, Ont. worries about what children will be doing when they are outside of the classroom such as during recess breaks, the time before classes start, and after school.
"There's not enough education for these kids out there to properly handle and wear a mask, let alone what they're going to do when they're outside," Bolduc said Sunday, adding that she worries younger kids may try to trade masks like they do hockey cards.
Bolduc says she will be keeping her 10-year-old son home until at least Christmas.
In order to send her son back, Bolduc says she would need to see class sizes reduced and more being done to keep kids two metres apart.
For Bolduc, she does not want to risk the health of her family by sending her son back to school. As industries evolve amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she says there needs to be a "new normal" when it comes to schooling.
"In no way is online learning a replacement for actual education. But in this case with this pandemic, we don't know how long it's going to go on and what previously worked probably won’t work now," Bolduc said.
While safely organizing hundreds of kids into one building during a pandemic is complex, Casey said provincial governments should try to be creative in finding solutions that are reassuring to parents.
"It's a terrible choice parents have been given when the provincial government did not offer parents an in-school option that showed a thoughtful and research-based attempt to protect children from COVID," Casey said.
Casey said she likely won't be sending her sons back to school, but said she still might if the Ontario government addresses some of her concerns such as physical distancing in the coming weeks.
HOMESCHOOLING AND ONLINE LEARNING
While online learning or homeschooling may not be challenging for some parents, others are concerned about how they will manage their new role as teacher.
Kerry Ruddick, a stay-at-home mom in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., told CTVNews.ca that she has decided to homeschool her 11-year-old son and her eight-year-old daughter. She explained that possible disruptions to her kids' education if a student or a staff member were to become infected is what led the family to choose homeschooling.
"My kids are quite sad about not going back, but I would rather them be safe and have them be able to see their grandparents and other family," Ruddick said on Sunday.
However, Ruddick is not a trained teacher and worries she may not provide the same level of education that a certified educator would. She says she does not want to "mess it up" but added that if she’s teaching them at home, it would be continuous learning. If they return to school and a classmate contracted the virus, the school would have to shut down.
Ruddick said she might have sent her kids back to school if class sizes were being reduced.
"The Alberta government has said that they would provide reusable masks and hand sanitizer which is fine, but they're not lowering class sizes," Ruddick said. "I've been to their classrooms, I've been to their schools, physical distancing is not going to happen."
Now, Ruddick says she wants to wait until there is a vaccine.
"If more was known about the virus and if more money was put into schools so that there was better safety solutions, maybe things would be different," Ruddick explained. "It costs a lot of money I get it, but this is just too important not to cost a lot of money."
However, some parents say they have "no choice" but to send their children back to school in the fall.
St. Catharines, Ont. resident Tracey Collins told CTVNews.ca that she has to send her daughter back to school for Grade 9 as she works full-time as a nurse and her husband works for the Coast Guard.
"Her last few months of Grade 8 online were terrible. I have no extra time off and [my husband] is also going in on most days, so helping her with school work is not really feasible," Collins said in a phone interview Monday.
Collins said it was difficult for her daughter to get answers back from teachers through online learning and hopes going to class will be better for her.
Maple, Ont. resident Ayesha Minhas was also not impressed with the online learning curriculum. Minhas has three children -- a toddler, a son entering senior kindergarten and a daughter going into Grade 4. She told CTVNews.ca that her kids will be returning to school.
Minhas explained on Tuesday that the online work became redundant for her daughter because there was no personal interaction from the teacher.
She added that she works full-time from home while also attending to her toddler and cannot afford private tuition or extra classes.
"I cannot keep them home, they will miss out on learning… So I am for sure sending them with some extra prayers, hand sanitizer and masks," Minhas said.
Since she is going back to work in a school, Toronto high school teacher Narie Ju-Hong says it only makes sense that her seven-year-old and her 10-year-old also return to the classroom.
"I'm going to go back to work and they're going to go back to school and if the schools close again then so be it, but I'd rather them just try," Ju-Hong said in a phone interview Tuesday.
"It's not an easy decision. I'm still anxious thinking about it, but I think it will be better for them. They want to be with their peers and classmates."
While her kids understand the importance of washing their hands and keeping a face mask on, Ju-Hong says she is concerned about other kids.
"I've seen parents send their kids to my kids' school and my own that are sick with the cold or a fever and once the flu season starts how do we know if it's the cold or COVID?" Ju-Hong asked.
RETURNING WHEN IT IS SAFE
Zakel-Farrow is not worried about online learning impacting her son's education.
"This little blip that we're experiencing and even if it's a longer blip, kids are resilient and they will adapt and figure out a new norm," Zakel-Farrow said. "Kids will bounce back… It is not going to be detrimental."
With her son going into Grade 1, Zakel-Farrow said children that age may still be too young to understand the importance of following the necessary safety measures.
"Even my six year old knows that the junior kindergarteners don't wash their hands as much as senior ones and they're more like babies sometimes… You can’t have 30 kids like that in one room," Zakel-Farrow said.
Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children issued an updated report at the end of July with recommendations on how children should safely return to school suggesting high school students wear face masks indoors whenever physical distancing rules cannot be followed, but elementary school students not be expected to follow the same guidelines.
For elementary school students, experts are not recommending masks in school, calling such advice impractical. Younger students may have challenges removing masks on their own and could end up touching their faces more, experts say, thereby putting themselves at greater risk of catching the virus.
While smaller class sizes are recommended, the guidance does not specify how large classes should be. While some jurisdictions have opened up classes to groups of 10 to 15 students, the experts say there isn’t enough evidence at this time to set a base class size.
The guidance also suggests that schools cancel choir and band practices involving wind instruments for the immediate future and that frequent "nutrition breaks" replace longer lunch breaks to limit unsupervised contact between students.
The updated recommendations come after SickKids released detailed guidance in June, recommending that students practice regular hand hygiene and that some classes be held outdoors when possible. The earlier guidance did not make a distinction between high school and elementary school students.
However, with Sickkids' guidelines only being recommendations for schools, Casey does not think it is safe yet to send children back to school.
"It will take much longer to truly understand this virus and the effect on humans so we have made the choice to put the long-term health of ourselves and our children first, despite the immediate challenges and concerns we are presented with by keeping them home," Casey said.
Edited by CTVNews.ca senior producer Mary Nersessian