Why the kids need a village: thoughts on reopening schools in ontario

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.

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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 vrtińá (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!

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Slowly, the ideas are starting to come in. One example of an innovative solution was on a podcast I listened to called ‚ÄúSolving Healthcare,‚ÄĚ 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):

  1. Remember that we are ALL doing our best;
  2. 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;)
  3. Be kind to yourself and remember that you can only control how you feel;
  4. 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;)
  5. Talk to your child’s teacher and come up with a plan of action if your child is struggling with online learning;
  6. Stay healthy mentally, physically and emotionally and stay safe.


With much love and gratitude,

N.

Fear, resilience and hope: reflections as we enter an unknown world

Since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic, I was silent.  I did not know how to process this information.  A few of my close friends described this as a real-life “Contagion.”  I am not a medical expert, but what I do know is that the worst here in Canada is yet to come.  I also know that it will be a very long time until things are back to “normal” again.  Like many of us, I entered a state of shock.

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The hardest thing for me to process was watching my husband’s demeanor change over a course of a few days.  My husband is a respirologist and like his colleagues, has been monitoring the situation quite closely.  When I asked him what this all meant, he looked at me and said that life will be different for a very long time.  The events happening throughout China and Italy paint a grim picture of what could happen if we don’t act fast to “flatten the curve.”  Within a week the number of positive cases in Canada have jumped to just over 1000.  

Not only are there an array of health issues and questions surrounding the management of the virus itself, but it touches upon so many other facets of life:  the economy, the workforce, the way government works, education and overall, our lifestyle.  Schools across the country and around the world have closed down.  Employers are asking their employees to work from home if at all possible.  Places of worship have asked their membership to pray/reflect at home; restaurants and bars have closed down, although some are remaining open for take out or curb-side pick-up just to keep afloat.  People are asked to self-isolate and keep their distance until medical professionals and governments can come up with a solution.  Life as we know it has stopped for a while so we can self-isolate in hopes of containing the virus and give the medical system some more time.

Probably the hardest thing society will face is not just the virus itself, but the financial implications that come with it.   In addition to that, I fear a mental health crisis is to follow

Humans are social beings and I know from experience that being on lock down is difficult.  I’ve had some experience on being on some sort of lock down:  my oldest son was born prematurely and the first winter home we could not leave the house (except for medical appointments) as his immunity was compromised.  I remember screening all visitors for colds because a common cold could harm his premature lungs.  He obtained an antibody shot called Synagis every month during cold and flu season to protect him against RSV.  As parents, our goal was to keep him safe.    

When I was pregnant with my youngest child, I experienced a form of isolation again. I was considered high risk due to my history of preterm labour.  This meant extra medical appointments and physical restrictions.  I  was placed on strict bed-rest for 2 months following a one-week hospital stay for short cervix.  I remember how difficult those times were-  not being able to go out, not being able to go to work, to pick up my toddler son, I couldn’t do anything….it was hard, but I had one goal in mind:  to keep my pregnancy safe and deliver to my baby to full-term

You see, there is a common theme here with this isolation- being safe.  In this present moment, our duty is to keep our loved ones safe; to protect our grandparents, our parents and our children.  It’s our duty to stay home and to protect the elderly and the vulnerable.  Our governments are asking us to do this and our medical professionals implore us to do it.  I don’t have a crystal ball, nor will I speculate on what is to come, but I do have hope that we can get through this.  It won’t be easy, but we have to stay positive.

It is clear, the effects of this pandemic will last years to come.  I’m sure our children and our children’s children will be learning about it in their history classes.  But as history has shown us, humans are resilient, time and time again.  We will grow strong and learn from this experience.   I am sure the best and the brightest are working on different treatments and solutions to bring this pandemic to an end, because there is hope.

We all have a role to play in this, by self-isolating, by helping the elderly, by being connected with our loved ones virtually, by staying home when you are sick and by washing our hands.  In the meantime, lets show our gratitude to all of those on the front lines:  doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, hospital staff, custodians, grocery store workers, delivery drivers and so on.  Together we can overcome this virus.  Together we are stronger, for our future depends on it.

silhouette photography of grass
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New Year, same old you….but improved

My take on resolutions and what I am doing differently…for once

As soon as that bell drops, you hear talk of new year’s resolutions. Some view the new year as an opportunity to make change for something- be it personal, physical or financial. For others its a time to set a goal (or goals) to further better themselves.

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I’ve often found myself thinking that resolutions are not achievable because we never follow through with them. We always hear “this will be my year to lose weight” or “I want to start a new job” but those extra few pounds end up hanging on or we are still sitting at our old desks.

How do I know this? Well, way back when, I too used to make resolutions. Losing weight was always a big one on my list, but after a few weeks into making my resolution, I would go back into my old ways. Eventually, I would give up and lose sight of my goal. I became cynical and vowed never to make a resolution again. I found them to be useless as I never stuck with them.

The past few months I spent a lot of time soul searching about what’s important to me and what truly matters in life. I believe that in today’s society we are exposed to too much vanity and consumerism that it made me question what I think is real and what is truly valuable. It then dawned upon me – instead of making a resolution – why not make a commitment to better myself?

Some commitments I made to better myself for 2019 are:

1. To spend less time on the phone: we don’t realize how much time we waste on our phones. Don’t get me wrong, I love browsing through friends pictures on Instagram or looking up recipes on Pinterest, but we really need to put our phones down and spend more time talking to one another and being sociable. It’s also a huge distraction. At home, we have already implemented a rule to keep our phones to the side unless we need to make or take a phone call. As we’ve become more self-conscious of how much screen time we expose ourselves and our children, we forget what real conversations are like. We end up spending way too much time comparing ourselves to others, because everything on social media is real, right? The point is to develop a healthy balance of screen time versus me/family/friend time.

2. To stop being so self-critical of myself: it’s true. We are our own toughest critics. I often tell others to not be so hard on themselves yet I am the hardest towards myself. I am trying to accept me for me and to accept that not everything will be picture perfect. I’m trying to tell myself that I am doing a good job trying to keep a good balance of everything. ¬†I will admit, achieving this notion of self-acceptance will be very challenging and please know that I am “working on it.”

3. To take the focus away on appearance and move it towards health: it’s not about the number on the scale (or dress size for that matter,) its about how you feel. My goal this year is to stay healthy and make the time for myself. ¬†This goal is more realistic as opposed to the “I am going to lose 10 lbs this year” one. ¬†Whether it’s running around outside with the kids, or going to spin class, the point is to take some time every day for physical activity. ¬†Preventative health is so important for both mental and physical health so why not start now? ¬†I love the feeling after a good workout, it makes me feel well-rounded and balanced. ¬† Also, I am trying to be more aware of what I’m consuming. Generally speaking, I do eat healthy, but I do splurge now and then (ummm donuts) and I have to remind myself that it’s okay to do so, but, as they say,¬†everything in moderation.

4. ¬†To be more thankful: ¬†we so often take for granted what we already have and we get so wound up in day-to-day life that we forget what really counts. ¬†I am making a commitment this year to be thankful everyday for what I already have. ¬†From the roof over my head, to those smiles that look at me everyday, I am so grateful. ¬†I think it’s so important to step back and take a moment to reflect on the things that actually count.

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Walking through a vineyard at Seavey Vinyards (Napa Valley, 2018)

These are my commitments to myself for this year. What are yours?

The wrath of those nasty daycare illnesses

One parents experience 

These past two weeks our household went through a variety of illnesses- pink eye, ear infection, gastrointestinal virus, and pneumonia to name a few. ¬† It got so bad to the point that our youngest was admitted to hospital due to severe pneumonia. ¬†Thankfully, we got there on time and things are on the mend now. ¬†These past two weeks have been extremely challenging on us. ¬†Having my youngest son in hospital triggered so many memories of my oldest’s time in the NICU. ¬†It is awful to see your child in pain and as parents, all we wanted to do was to take it away and make him feel better. ¬† However, thanks to an amazing paediatrician who sent us to hospital and a great support system at home, we got back on track. ¬†As soon as we got admitted, my son was hooked up to an IV and things started to get better. ¬†As quickly as his pneumonia came, it also quickly started to disappear¬†when the antibiotics started to take it’s course.

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As soon as October comes around, we try to “mentally” prepare for another brutal cold and flu season. ¬†You would think that after a few years of being in daycare we would be better prepared, or immune to say the least. We prepare as best as we can: ¬†giving our kids proper nutrition, and taking daily multivitamins. ¬†We practice good hand-washing and hygiene at home and put the kids to bed early. ¬†We even get the flu shot yearly, as my oldest was preemie and his immune system was compromised for a while. ¬† However, when your child is in daycare, they catch different bugs, no matter how well-prepared you are. ¬†Research has shown that children get sick on average of 8 to 12 times a year, at an average of 10 days per illness. ¬† So in laymen’s terms that means that they are pretty much sick for 6 months of the year!

Last year we thought we experienced it all- hand, food and mouth disease, strep and so on.  We were hopeful that their tiny bodies developed a better immune system for this upcoming cold and flu season, but boy were we wrong!  

It started with my youngest developing an upper respiratory virus and was at home for 7 days; then my oldest and I had a gastrointestinal bug for a few days.  Then my husband caught a nasty virus and eye infection.  Then my oldest got sick again with fever which ended up being bronchitis and an ear infection.   Then my youngest developed pneumonia and in less than 24 hours he was in hospital.   It was an awful feeling but we got to the right place at the right time, and here we are, on the mend, all healthier and happier.

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Although it was challenging, as my husband was on call and I was trying to manage things at work, we were able to work things out.  When your child, or children get sick, my advice is as follows:

Have a support system in place:  
I was fortunate enough to be granted time off from work to watch my kids. We also had lots of help from my in-laws. ¬†I am grateful to have a good support system around when times like this happen and that’s important, especially when your little ones get sick. ¬† Have an emergency list at home of family and friends who are available to help when your child gets sick; especially if you have more than one child at home. ¬†It’s nice to have someone available to help run out and grab some groceries or watch one of your children at home if you have to take one to the doctor’s office or hospital.

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Proper nutrition and sleep:
This is key- any person, let alone a child, is healthier when they eat and sleep well. ¬†Try and encourage good eating habits at home and set a bedtime routine. ¬† I also stock up on homemade chicken soup and keep some broth in the freezer in the event a fever is brewing as it has lots of nutrients. ¬† Not only is good nutrition and sleep good for children, but it’s¬† beneficial for you as well. ¬†I got sick a lot last year because I was not sleeping enough, despite eating well and exercising regularly. ¬†Some things like laundry just have to take the back burner because sleep is more important. ¬†Research backs that up!

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Keep a list
Keep a list of important phone numbers such as your family doctor (or child’s¬†paediatrician) handy in the event you need to make an appointment for a sudden illness. ¬† ¬† I have our doctor’s office phone number stored in my phonebook and also in my Outlook. ¬†Know where your nearest urgent care centre, walk-in clinic or hospital is if you¬†have an¬†emergency. ¬† Also keep handy a list of important phone numbers such as family members, friends, or neighbours in the event an emergency takes place. ¬†

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Practice good hygiene 
This is common sense, but good hand washing and sanitizing will prevent the spreading of illnesses.  If you are sick, stay home from work or school as illness can spread easily.   I also like to wash linens and towels weekly.

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In a cruel way, it’s ironic that a respirologist’s family all developed pulmonary illnesses, including himself. ¬†However, we survived. ¬†We hope this is the end of those nasty daycare illnesses….for now.