'A tough choice': Mixed feelings as parents, teachers prepare for a return to school
TORONTO -- Jill Promoli knows -- even more than most parents -- how quickly illness can spread through a classroom and be brought home. She lost her two-year-old son Jude to the flu in May, 2016 after her daughter contracted the illness in class.
Now, the family must weigh what they will do in six weeks when schools reopen.
“It’s a tough choice. And I think we’re all in this position now where we have to decide how much risk we are comfortable with. And it's a bad position to be in,” Promoli told CTV News Channel on Friday.
Ontario was the first province to shut down schools in March after the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. After nearly half a year at home, most children across Ontario will be returning to school full-time with elementary classes unchanged from pre-pandemic sizes. Some high school students will follow a hybrid model of in-school and online learning.
Across Canada, many families are making similar preparations for a return to school. The Ontario decision came just after news that most students in British Columbia will also be returning to class full-time in September, and the same day that Manitoba made a similar announcement. Alberta and Nova Scotia unveiled their plans a week earlier.
But parents and teachers are divided or have mixed feelings over the risk-benefits of going back -- both for themselves and for the children. Some parents -- at their wits’ end juggling working from home, homeschooling and caring for their children -- welcome the news, while others worry about the risks involved with a return to in-person lessons, particularly if there are immunocompromised family members in the household. Teachers too struggle between the challenges of online instruction, being able to interact face-to-face with their students again, and worrying for their own health.
For now, Promoli is leaning towards sending her children back to school, but it is a big decision for the family.
The Ontario government says it will be investing $309 million in staffing, protective equipment, cleaning supplies, additional nursing staff, testing, mental health support and more to ensure a safe return to classrooms. There are a number of restrictions that will be in place for students. Perhaps most notably, masking will be required for grades 4 to 12, but not mandatory for younger students, even though they are encouraged. Meanwhile, B.C. says it is spending $46.5 million to help schools prepare.
Eleanor Pinney, who is both a teacher and a parent of two children, expressed confidence with Ontario's reopening plans and going back to teach as well as sending her own children to school.
“I trust in the policies and procedures that are put in place that they will keep us safe,” she said, speaking to News Channel.
“I am also excited to see children reunite, to see each other face-to-face again and still social distance. But just to have that component -- I believe it’s crucial to their development and their well-being.”
Still, Pinney is not without concerns and said she will continue to monitor the news in case there are developments that would change her mind.
The provincial guidelines generally fall in line with some of the updated recommendations that health experts at SickKids hospital in Toronto issued this week, which include recommending a full-time, in-person return they say will benefit the educational, mental health and social development well-being of children.
Promoli said she was glad to see the mask requirements for the older kids, but suggested that it should be considered for younger children as well. Her family has already been practicing wearing the masks for a while now, she explained, adding that while they were initially apprehensive, they adjusted quickly.
“I don’t know if we give our kids enough credit. They have been doing a lot better with them than what the expert opinions have been suggesting would be appropriate for kids in younger ages,” she said.
“They got really comfortable with the idea really quickly and understood that this is another way they can protect themselves and their friends and everyone they come in contact with.”
Still, Promoli told CTV’s News Channel that she has advised her children not to “police” other children if they are not wearing a mask.
“It’s not for them to judge -- there’s reasons that every family’s making the choices that they make and we are not going to tell them they’re right or wrong. We’re just going to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can.”
In addition to masks in Ontario, the usual hygiene and physical distancing protocols will continue to be applied in schools, which some have said could prove challenging, especially among younger children.
“As a parent, I prepared both my children. For the last four months we have been doing social distancing, we also wear a mask, we use sanitizer, we wash our hands, so I do feel comfortable with sending both my children back to school,” said Pinney, who acknowledged that as a teacher, there may be some challenges in the beginning that should be alleviated once a routine has been established.
“A routine fosters independence and it also helps with discipline. So I believe as we continue with it … I think things will go well.”
Parents and students are also asked to “self-monitor” for symptoms and to stay home if they do not feel well, which advocates say may be difficult in practice for those who may not be able to take time off easily for financial reasons. Laws vary across each province, but generally, provinces have enacted some form of job-protected emergency leave allowance due to COVID-19, but restrictions apply and the leave is generally unpaid.
What is missing from these back-to-school plans is government support for parents and making sick days more affordable and accessible, so they are not having to decide between paying their rent or sending their sick children to school, Promoli said.
“Beyond that, unless your employer has a more generous policy, you’re kind of out of luck,” she added.
“That’s just going to mean when people don’t have a choice, they are going to send their sick children to school. They are going into work sick. And that’s how we get illness in the classroom in the first place and that’s how we get people sick at work.”