TORONTO -- Before summer began, the most common question I fielded was probably “When is this going to be over?” “This” of course, refers to the global pandemic that none of us anticipated happening a mere 12 months ago when we planned vacations, conferences, and weddings, let alone our ordinary life routines. “Over”? Well, that is an entirely different story. We have journeyed through several stages as a global community, caught seemingly unawares of a microbial threat that is profoundly insidious, pervasive and intrusive in nature.

Dismissiveness was quickly followed by shock and disbelief, and as the death counts rose, eventually, there was no other news but COVID-19. Fear, anger, anxiety and helplessness appeared when it became abundantly clear that this wasn’t just a transient syndromic phenomenon.

Eventually, this gave way to acceptance and we have gone from asking “When will it be over?” to “How do we live with this”? Central to this question is the pressing need for re-examining our daily lives and addressing the inherent risk we have taken too lightly when it comes to preventing transmission of infectious diseases.

Every human interaction, from the most basic form of greeting to the operation of public institutions and practicing of faith in communal settings, is under audit. A global pandemic will do that.

And so we find ourselves shifting the discourse from “When” to “How”; for any parent of kids under the age of 18, few issues have demanded as much attention and triggered more angst than going back to school. The overwhelming majority of parents, myself included, have little doubt that the need to return to school is hardly a “should” but a “must."

I can personally attest to my woefully inadequate ability to teach a seven year old for more than 30 minutes without risking certain loss of sanity, never mind having to navigate the minefield of interruptions from two other siblings, in potentially questionable states of attire, competing for the same screen.

On particularly challenging days, I jokingly (yet not so jokingly) tell my wife how I long for the more predictable stress of a crowded ER or the semi-controlled chaos of an ICU ward. Had it not been for my wife’s other-worldly patience, tirelessness, and dedication to our DNA (something that might garner Order of Canada merit by now), it’s entirely possible we would be resorting to primal grunts and hand gestures by now, the intellectual capacity of our household dwindling by the day.

It’s also abundantly clear that a curriculum delivered via WiFi and dependent on bandwidth is vastly inferior to one that involves organic human communication and promotes healthy social engagement from both peers and teachers alike.

Virtual playdates, while easier to pre-empt or schedule, fall dreadfully short in terms of offering the type of social bonding experiences that allow friendships to grow and thrive, even when you’re barely old enough to spell Zoom, let alone use it.

In short, my wife and I decided in principle, sometime in the dog days of June, that we would do whatever made the most sense to get our three boys, aged four, seven and nine, back to some semblance of proper education. She would no longer be the Swiss Army Mom and I would go back to being a dad from the comfortable confines of the ER and ICU. Sepsis is a piece of cake by comparison, frankly.


In determining our decision, we weighed several factors, including not only the ages and unique needs of each child, but the preparedness of each school environment for the inevitability of worsening viral transmission within the community and outbreaks, something I predict with some certainty to happen with the reopening, not out of catastrophizing and fear, but out of an awareness of epidemiologic reality. We also considered the importance of the makeup of our own household, one that is multi-generational in nature.

My mother-in-law’s timeless beauty defies her age but she is, by legal document, over the age of 70, and minimizing her risk of exposure to COVID-19 was, by far, the most critical consideration in our decision.

Our seven and nine year olds attend a local private school. While I had never attended anything but public education in my own life, our oldest child showed signs of unique learning needs early in his preschool years that have fortunately been supported well with the additional attention he now receives.

Despite the apparently smaller class sizes, the physical layout of the classrooms, and other parameters relevant to risk mitigation, were still important in our evaluation and were discussed in turn with the school’s administration.

Cognizant of the emerging evidence of higher rates of nasal carriage of SARS-COV-2 in young children, and the obvious potential for enhanced viral transmission, we were reassured that plexi-shields would be in place in all office and reception areas and that a policy of universal masking would apply to all students, staff, and visitors.

While we recognized the inherent challenges of distancing within the classroom, we took some comfort in the commitment to utilizing outdoor learning spaces and the investment in updated HVAC systems to optimize ventilation.

We also felt that priority was being given not only to cohorting, but to organizing a thoughtful strategy for drop-off and pick-up routines, as well as other issues relating to accommodating volumes of students without risking unnecessary congestion in hallways, corridors, etc. Finally, we were pleased to identify an apparent commitment to hand hygiene with sanitizing stations and hand pumps located throughout the school.


As for our four year old, his preschool comprises children between the ages of three and six in a single classroom with a larger class size than that found in our other sons’ school. I must credit the school’s administration for their genuine attempts to safeguard against potential transmission through several strategies, including opening windows, offering outdoor activities whenever possible, and prioritizing hand hygiene insofar as is possible with kids this young. For a variety of reasons, the school will encourage but not mandate face coverings.

After weighing the benefits to our son against the risks to our household, the decision to withdraw our son was easy. I say “easy” referring not to the actual result -- which leaves a very disappointed young child in our midst unable to appreciate why he is denied the same privileges his brothers are given -- but to the degree of deliberation required.

The risk of my mother-in-law’s health and safety being seriously compromised greatly outweighs the loss of formal education for a four year old for potentially a period of less than a year.

As I write this, it is not lost on me how fortunate I am. I am aware that I have the financial means, the knowledge and advocacy tools, and the flexibility to decide whether to withhold my children, possibly all of them, from attending school. I recognize that there are so many for whom no real choice is actually possible.

Losing your job and not being able to afford rent or food versus sending your kids to school -- one that may or may not be designed to withstand the extraordinary stresses of a pandemic response -- is not a choice. It’s an awful situation that begs needed attention to resources and equity, and one that is beyond the scope of this piece.

Suffice it to say, when we send our kids back to school, we ought to recognize that IF we actually have a choice, we do so with the burden of responsibility towards others not so fortunate. It’s not about charity. It’s about accountability.

That means discipline, empathy and a sincere, committed sense of adherence to public health measures everywhere outside the classroom so that COVID-19 doesn’t find its way into the classroom either. We are all writing this test together and we owe to each other to get a passing grade. Failing is not an option.

To help those parents who’ve chosen to send their kids back to school in person, asked Dr. Abdu Sharkawy to rate common school activities based on how risky they are in the pandemic. Sharkawy rated riding to school in an Uber or Lyft as low because some vehicles have a plastic barrier between seats and drivers and riders are required to wear masks. He rated riding with family members as medium and then carpooling with others as medium-high because riders may not wear masks if those people are in the same social bubble.

(Can't see the graphic below? Click here)

COVID-19 risk level by school activity Aug 24 2020