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Pandemic Question – Are Kids Going Back to School, Like, Ever?

Mark, Ottawa, summer 2020
Mark, Ottawa, summer 2020

Mark’s last day of school was on March 13, 2020.

He should have started Grade 3 this week. Instead, I’m keeping him busy with the latest download, Dora and the Lost City of Gold.

Clearly, something went wrong along the way…

Who says what in Canada’s decentralized education system?

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t get to say “hey, teachers, leave those kids alone!” or “wake me up when September ends.”

In fact, education falls within provincial jurisdiction. So Quebec sent kids back to school last week but in Ontario, we’re still waiting for a date. Or a plan, actually.

To further complicate matters, educational programs are administered by several district school boards under the provincial or territorial ministry of education. There are 76 public school boards in Ontario. In Ottawa, we deal with four of them—the Ottawa Catholic School Board, the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est, the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (that’s ours).

Totally lost? Don’t worry—most of the time, so are we.

The point is, the decision-making process is usually long and complicated. It involves many stakeholders and parents get a shitload of emails.

The three back-to-school scenarios

Three possible scenarios for Ontario were released late June:

  • remote learning
  • a full return to in-class learning with public-health measures
  • a hybrid-learning model (two days of school a week)

So basically, all possible scenarios. Ah, ah, that helps.

According to local media reports, private schools’ phone has been ringing off the hook all summer long. Of course, they’re also affected by lockdowns, but smaller classes and some kind of engaging remote learning plan B was enough to make them particularly attractive as Ontario was scrambling around trying to come up with a plan.

Since I don’t have $20,000 a year to spare, we spent the summer waiting for that plan.

Dozens of emails later, it’s still hazy and we don’t have a back-to-school date yet.

Sample of emails we received this summer
Sample of emails we received this summer

“Make a decision!” “No, YOU make a decision!”

Over the summer, parents were asked to decide whether their child will attend school in person or via remote learning. Problem was, there wasn’t much info about either of the two options—typical “chicken or egg dilemma,” the board needed numbers to come up with a plan and parents wanted clear structured plans before making a decision.

The deadline was pushed back several times, each email sounding increasingly desperate.

Eventually, “73% of elementary and 78% of secondary respondents opted for in-person learning.”

School start date pushed back

We read it on CBC first—school start date was pushed back to September 8 as planners needed more time to… ahem, plan.

The school board only emailed us a couple of days later: “There will be a change to the start of the school year; students will now start school between September 8th and September 18th. This will ensure proper planning and safety is in place. We will share a detailed plan of the progressive start dates at the beginning of next week.”

We’re still waiting for a date—sometimes in 2020, hopefully.

Enough already, reopen classrooms!

I do want Mark to attend school in person. I strongly believe kids need a classroom structure to learn academic and social skills, as well as rules, team work, empathy, differences, etc.

Our spring “remote learning” experience was a massive failure. He only had a thirty-minute weekly “class activity” online and needed help for all assignments since surprisingly, a seven-year-old kid doesn’t have the motivation and the ability to use a laptop and study independently. Instructions were unclear or unrealistic—his French teacher’s only assignment was the dreaded “write your diary.” I actually ended up typing it myself for a week before giving up completely. Why on earth would you ask kids to write (in their second language!) about their unexciting day during the lockdown? “Every day is the same,” Mark complained a thousand of times…

Remote learning may work for older students or younger kids if a parent decides to be a full-time teacher. This is not an option for us. I love spending an hour explaining something to Mark but I lack time and stamina for consistent, repetitive practice—not to mention we have to work.

And this is the hard truth—for most families, return to school is a false choice.

But wait… is it a smart move?

Much like millions of parents over the world, I’m worried and conflicted.

It feels like nothing changed since March 2020. Sure, new cases are down across Canada and we avoided the worst-case scenario so far, but we still don’t know how to eradicate or cure COVID-19. Virus impact on children is unclear and we don’t understand how they affect transmission. Getting tested isn’t as easy as it should and accuracy is controverted.

Mentally, it’s a bit of a stretch to go from taped-off play structures and strict social distancing to “eh, let’s keep hundreds of kids indoors for hours!” I can list the people we’ve had close contact with since March—once Mark goes back to school, I’m losing control.

I’m worried about the psychological effects of COVID-19 restrictions and measures. It’s not natural for kids (and adults!) to wear masks and follow strict social distancing procedures.

I’m worried because teachers are worried—they know schools better than us and I trust their judgment. Plus, a nervous teacher won’t do a good job.

I’m worried because our school constantly screw up emails, spelling, dates and more. They can’t even run the “milk and pizza” program properly or plan activities without the help of hundreds of volunteers. How are they going to handle COVID?

I’m worried that we’re gonna have to go into quarantine the minute a child has a runny nose.  

I’m worried we’re focusing on the wrong things. Most kids have been meeting in playgrounds for weeks now, so much for social distancing. Now, can we talk about ventilation and cleaning procedures at school?

So yeah, I’m worried. But Mark has to go back to school.

What a crazy world…

How about you? How do you feel about going back to work or sending your kids back to school?

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