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.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

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!

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

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):

  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.

It’s okay to cry: why it’s okay if you have to sometimes

One mother’s perspective on the challenges of raising spirited children and debriefing after a challenging situation

Parenthood is full of ebbs and flows, and on this particular night, I was done. I walked away to a dark corner and needed that space to be alone. When I went down to the floor, so too did the tears.

I had used all my energy to try and calm an inconsolable child down, and I couldn’t anymore. I tried so hard to console him, but the tantrum sucked every ounce of life out of me. Despite all my best efforts to try and calm him down, using all the strategies I learned from books such as the Whole Brain Child and Raising your Spirited Child, nothing was working. I tried our breathing exercises, which he flat out refused and then counting down to ten, but nothing worked.

So I had to turn around and walk away.

Let me back track the scenario: He was upset because he was asked to go to bed early. He started to be a little cranky and my husband said it was time for bed. He then started to cry and scream. My husband simply ignored all this and kept saying, “I think you are tired, let’s go to bed.” The screaming escalated as my son did not want to comply, so he started to bang the floor with his feet and hit. My husband said “hands are not for hitting,” but it didn’t work.

After some time, I stepped in to relieve my husband. I went down to my son’s level and said, “you seem really frustrated that it’s bedtime, don’t you? I know it’s fun to stay up late, but it’s time to get some rest.” He obviously did not like that answer. I then asked him to count to ten and he yells back at me “NO!” I said, “let’s breathe out the angry moster three times,” which he kept screaming “NO!” I then said, “I can’t understand you when you talk like that..” Normally, these strategies would have worked, but tonight, nothing seemed to have worked. Perhaps it was because he was overtired that made the tantrum even worse, or the fact that we have a full-house right now (our in-laws are living with us temporarily). He did not want to give up his fight and towards the end, I had to walk away.

Eventually, it was my father-in-law who was able to calm him down. They had a little chit-chat about what happened and he was able to emotionally regroup himself. They talked it out and he came out of his room. He looked a little sad and almost embarrassed for how he behaved. He apologized to both my husband and I for how he treated us. He said he just wasn’t ready for bedtime yet. I explained to him why bedtime is so important, that sleep is healthy and we need sleep to help us grow. I told him that I forgave him, but then said that for your consequence, you get no TV privileges tomorrow. He accepted his consequence gracefully and I ended the moment by telling him that “I love you, no matter what. Tomorrow is a new day and a fresh start.” He agreed and finally fell asleep.

When he went to bed, I sat towards the end of the hallway, I found a dark corner and I started to cry. I felt as if all the energy I had was completely sucked out of me. I also felt like a huge failure because I wasn’t the one who was able to calm him down. During that moment, I felt defeated because I tried everything I could to help him and it wasn’t me who was able to calm him down, but someone else.

So I needed that moment to cry and let all my emotions out…..and you know what? That is totally okay.

Why?

Because over the years I learned the following three things when it comes to motherhood:

1. To acknowledge my feelings and to own up to them;

2. To accept that sometimes its okay to ask for help;

3. To remind myself that I am human, too.

Raising kids, let alone spirited children is hard, especially when kids are experiencing huge emotions. It can be challenging navigating how they feel during those moments. But as I have learned, sometimes we as adults forget that children too have good days and bad days and that on the bad days, they may have a more difficult time expressing how they feel. During this scenario, my son had a hard time communicating that he was just not ready for bed. Definitely we could have all done things differently, but in the end, it worked out because we as a family worked as a team to resolve the situation.

For a long time, I had a hard time accepting that it’s okay to ask for help, but in a situation like this one, sometimes it’s good to have extra hands on deck. Whether its the other parent, or a grandparent, or whoever, sometimes we need that extra person to help turn the situation around. No wonder why experts often say that it takes a village to raise a child.

On the other hand, knowing that as much as parenthood is rewarding, it is also requires a lot of hard work, sweat and tears. The other thing that took me a while to accept was knowing that it’s okay to walk away and cry if you have to, or to debrief in some other form (sometimes I will jot my feelings down in a journal, which is also very helpful). Sometimes we as mothers (and parents in general) need to let our emotions out. Parenthood is difficult and accepting that it is healthy to let our emotions out is a physically and emotionally good thing. Whether its a good cry, a good laugh or a good run….whatever it is, just do it. It’s all part of that process of coping with a difficult situation.

Overall my message is, that we as parents are human like anyone else. Accepting that it is okay to walk away and cry after these challenging moments is totally okay. Crying isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather of humility and great strength. According to Medical News Today, crying has some soothing benefits and can help relive stress during difficult moments.

My advice to all you mom’s out there: if you need to cry, just let it out. If you need to go outside and get some fresh air, do it. If you need to fill up a tub and soak in some epsom salts, just do it. I can’t stress enough that it’s okay to feel frustrated sometimes when things don’t work out how you wanted them to. It happens to even the best of us. I think it’s always good to regroup after a difficult moment. After all, as I tell my children after a challenging moment, tomorrow is always a new day.

Photo credit: Three Little Birds Photography

Reference: Medical News Today, “Eight benefits of crying: Why it’s good to shed a few tears.”

How COVID-19 got to me: stress, fear, uncertainty and self-care during a global pandemic

Friday was the first day that I cried….a lot.

I felt exhausted from homeschooling the kids, trying to get some work done as well as regular chores and I just couldn’t handle it anymore.  I buried my head into a sea of tears and had to walk away into a different room in my home to be alone.  I felt guilty for doing this, because I did not want my boys to see me cry.  My husband told the kids that mommy needs a few minutes to herself.

Before the pandemic, if I was ever stressed, I would go to the gym or go out to a local coffee shop to diffuse, but due to the current lock-down there is no where to go, which adds an extra layer of stress.

I never in my life imagined that we would live through a global pandemic, yet here we are.

It is currently week 6 of the lock-down here in Ontario and everyone is starting to feel it in different ways.

Up until this point, I was making the most of this situation.  I embraced the idea of slowing down.  I even wrote a blog post about it.  I started to do things that I normally wouldn’t have time to do:  participating in the wave of baking bread and sharing it on Instagram; drinking fancy wines on the weekends, pinning arts and crafts ides for the kids on Pinterest and purged a lot of old clothes and toys for donation.  I started watching foreign dramas on Netflix for fun and even contemplated downloading TikTok and get in on the bandwagon, but changed my mind because I am too old for it.

For the first time in years,  I had a break from rushing home from work to soccer practice and I really enjoyed this idea and yet, time went on…..

There is still that fear of catching the virus itself.  As my oldest has asthma and was born with a heart condition, I am extra vigilant.   I barely leave the house and if I do, its just for necessities.  On top of all this, I still worry that my husband may bring it home from the hospital where he works at.

As the lock-down here in Ontario continues on, it started to hit close to home for me.  Knowing that it will be months until I see my parents, my friends and colleagues again started to weigh heavily on me.  2020 was supposed to be our year.  Our family has been through so much over the past 6 years- premature birth, high-risk pregnancy, my husband’s residency and a sudden family death to name a few.  I know, many of you had plans cancelled too, so we aren’t alone, but I just felt like this was a big and crewel joke.

Now, I am starting to worry about the financial implications of the pandemic too.  Like you, many questions are going through my mind:  will there be massive job loss?  Will our taxes increase to support these benefits?  Will we ever recover from this?  

This created a perfect storm which culminated in me breaking down on Friday night.  However, this in of itself brought a huge relief as I let all that fear, worry and guilt out.  I’ve been positive throughout this whole process and on Friday night, I was extremely overwhelmed.  Trying to balance everything at home just got to me and I reached my boiling point. I needed that release.

What I can tell you is that I am learning more about myself and how to cope with such situations.  This time has also given me time to self-reflect and I gained a new perspective. My grandfather lived through three wars, Spanish flu and communism, yet he lived a wonderful life and passed away at age 101.  He endured and saw a lot in his lifetime but he survived.  He had hope and appreciation for life.

What I have found helpful during these times is reflection and mindfulness.  I have been journaling since I was 8 years old and I have found journaling so helpful during this time.  Staying connected on social media has become a blessing and watching all those good memes (the guy toasting to himself in the washroom is my all time favourite).  Self-care and taking breaks from homeschooling and work is so important too, I’ve had a few nights where I just had a face mask on while reading a good book.  I also find exercise quite therapeutic.

My advice if you are feeling overwhelmed, upset or frustrated, take that energy and turn it into something positive.  Find your niche.  Find something that sparks you, that makes you feel like you, no matter how difficult the circumstances are.

If you feel overwhelmed like I do, I want you to know, it’s okay, because you are not alone.  It’s okay to cry and let your feelings out.  We are all feeling this and is even getting to the strongest of us……and it’s okay to feel vulnerable.  I keep reminding myself to count my blessings and that this will not last forever.

As I have learned with experience, the human spirit is resilient, but this is a choice:  you have to choose that path and firmly believe in it because your mindset is what will get you through this.