Schools throughout Southwestern Ontario have remained closed since the Christmas break. The original plan was for students to return to in-person instruction on January 11, 2021. However, statistics from the Ministry of Health released just days before the return to school indicated a spike in cases as a result of “holiday gatherings,” (which in my view was negligible because the amount of children being tested decreased during over the holidays and therefore the denominator was less). As a result of this, the provincial government made the agonizing decision to extend online learning for most parts of Southern Ontario until February 10th. Although I believe this was a difficult decision to make and as much as I appreciate efforts to curb the spread of the virus, this left many children and parents heartbroken, upset and confused.
I can see that heartbreak in my kids, everyday. My 4 year old son, cries almost every day and tells me “mama, I miss real school” and finds it very hard to stay engaged. My oldest son who is 6, sometimes gets frustrated because he feels as if he can’t keep up with the rest of the class. We are now into week three of virtual learning and my children are really starting to feel it. The stimulation from the screen time coupled with the frustration of navigating online learning is difficult for children in their primary years.
Don’t get me wrong: both of my children’s teachers have been phenomenal and very understanding of the situation. They have gone above and beyond to help my kids cope during this time, including one-on-one meetings, encouraging us to use meditation and breaks when needed. We really need to give our teachers a show of appreciation right now because they themselves are adapting to a new learning environment. Despite all of our efforts to make online learning a positive experience, I am worried about the impact of continued online learning in young children, specifically:
-The lack of interaction with their peers, especially during the formative years of development;
-The long-term effects of disruption in the school year and finally;
-That we are inadvertently creating a mental health crisis in all our youth.
I have been communicating with my MPP’s office on and off since the summer, writing letters and voicing my concern for my children’s well-being and quality of education. I understand that we are living in unprecedented times and I truly believe that they are trying their best to help protect a vulnerable health care system and the elderly. However, based on all the literature and data about schools, closing schools is the wrong policy choice. UNICEF recently came out with a statement and declared that children cannot afford to miss another year of school. The CEO of Sick Kids Hospital even stated that schools should be “the first to open and the last to close.” But even more disturbing are stories such as the New York Times report on the decision for schools in Las Vegas to reopen as result of increased suicides in youth.
This should frighten every parent.
I have come to the conclusion that despite all the academic evidence, children’s voices have not been heard at the decision-making table. This is where we as parents must come in and this is why I have been advocating for a safe return to school since the summertime.
Please don’t misunderstand me and I have to be explicit when I state this: I know first-hand how serious COVID-19 is and personally have friends and family on the front-lines of the COVID-19 crisis, but something in my heart tells me that keeping children away from the classroom is also wrong. When every peer-reviewed journal has indicated that the spread of the virus is extremely low in school-aged children and that schools are in fact, the safest place for children to be in right now, why are the schools still closed, knowing that the risks greatly outweigh the benefits?
It’s just plain wrong.
I recently read a tweet from the the CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) which stated that Ottawa had the second-highest rate of distress calls to the Kids Help Line. That tweet really resonated something inside me. As an NICU parent, I have my own appreciation around mental health awareness and as such, I decided I could not stay silent no more. As an NICU parent and navigating our journey through prematurity, I learned early on, that a parent is a child’s greatest advocate. Considering too that we are also approaching Mental Health Day here in Canada, I believe this conversation is appropriate. So last week, I reached out to my friends on my private account on Instagram via my stories to see if any one else felt the way I did.
The response was overwhelming and the consensus was…..children need to be in schools.
The conversations I had with many of my friends inspired me so much because every person I spoke with was in a different situation, or they had a different view of the pandemic. But despite all these differences, I was able to engage with each person in a meaningful and positive way. I believe that engaging in this manner is what should be the foundation towards positive change and sound policy-making.
In summary, the response was overwhelmingly positive but also revealed a lot of sadness, fear and frustration. I spoke with people from all walks of life: from health care providers, teachers, early childhood educators, business owners, parents and non-parents, stay at home parents and working parents. Overall, everyone agrees that children need to be in school. Many parents told me that they have noticed a negative change of behaviour in their children, others said they felt tremendous guilt for leaving them to watch television while they had to work and others were concerned about the amount of screen time as a result of remote learning. Some individuals reached out to me and told me that they kept their kids home for the year, not because they were afraid of coronavirus, but they were more concerned about the possible interuptions to their child’s learning.
It was interesting to note that in other places in the world, like Croatia for instance, kindergarten is not mandatory, rather there is vrtić (daycare,) which is optional and is more for young children to socialize. A close friend of mine who lives in Paris, France told me that children have been going to school the whole time, while another friend in Australia told me that the measures were just too much.
Many teachers disclosed to me that online learning, especially for children in their formative years is not ideal and rather this was created more as a response for the demand for live learning at home. As pointed out by one teacher, the amount of time for synchronous learning also has no bearing on pedagogy. Another close friend who works in occupational therapy told me that the amount of distress calls, specifically with families who have autistic children, went through the roof.
Although I am not disputing the severity of the virus and agree that there must be an effort to slow the spread of the virus as a means to protect our vulnerable and our health care system, there also needs to be a balance, in my view. I too was for lockdown back in March when we knew very little of the virus. Images of Wuhan, Iran and Northern Italy frightened us and we had to do something about it. However, 10 months in, countless studies and research, vaccines finally arriving, we still aren’t doing any better for our kids. This is leaving many parents afraid that schools will be closed until March.
We know already that the results of prolonged lockdown policies are disproportionately affecting low-income communities, ethnic minorities, women and children. My question is, despite all the research regarding children and schools, why aren’t we doing any better? How come no one else has proposed a more sustainable solution?
But there is hope!
Slowly, the ideas are starting to come in. One example of an innovative solution was on a podcast I listened to called “Solving Healthcare,” hosted by Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng. This particular episode that I listened to consisted of a panel of experts ranging from infectious disease, communications and public health. They discussed possible solutions to the pandemic and addressed areas of concern. I was particularly impressed by some of the ideas that they proposed such as:
-going back to the core values of public health;
-having a clear and consistent message;
-the need to address target areas that are greatly affected by COVID-19 such as workplaces and long-term care homes;
-making more use of available tools such as rapid testing and finally;
-paid sick leave for essential workers.
You can listen more to the podcast here and decide for yourself, but from my point of view, this was an excellent start for changing policy. Listening to a dialogue such as this one reminded me of the core values I learned as a graduate student in political science many years ago. Creating good public policy means coming up with sustainable solutions to handling a crisis, without harming other aspects of society. It’s about being efficient with the tools you have available for everyone to benefit from.
But going back to my main concern of keeping schools closed, please know, that I am not by any means undermining the severity of this virus. However, I am speaking as a concerned parent who wants what is best for her children. Its what we as parents, educators, health care providers alike want and should strive towards: a safe, loving, nurturing and warm environment for all children. Like the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. We need to support our children during this time and come up with ways to help them not just cope, but to thrive, for they are our future!
Let’s be that village and let’s support our children!
Some of the conclusions I came up with during my Instagram conversation to help navigate during this time (and for you too):
- Remember that we are ALL doing our best;
- Remind your kids that they are doing their best too and give them breaks when they need it (i.e. outdoor play, going for a walk or bike ride, puzzle time, colouring sheets or watching a movie;)
- Be kind to yourself and remember that you can only control how you feel;
- Know that support is available if you need it (i.e. call a friend or a family member for mental support; know that there is also support available in your community;)
- Talk to your child’s teacher and come up with a plan of action if your child is struggling with online learning;
- Stay healthy mentally, physically and emotionally and stay safe.
With much love and gratitude,