Local school boards are busy devising plans for when school resumes in a few weeks, and the requirements and suggestions are examined in another article in this issue concerning the Upper Canada District School Board. In the meantime, parents have to wait and see. For parents in North Grenville, the uncertainty of what the next school year will look like for their children has been extremely stressful. Samantha Kutowy is the mother of three elementary-school aged children who all attend South Branch Elementary School in North Grenville. She has been on the School Council for the past three years, and is the cofounder of the local parents group, the Ontario Parenting Connection. “We’re all really stressed out and worried,” she says. “We want our kids to be safe.”
Samantha says that most families want their children back at school in the Fall, as long as it is safe for them to be there. This is due, in part, to the fact that many have families where both parents work, and access to proper childcare is difficult. She says that even the hybrid model would be hard, because the children would still to be learning at home a few days a week.
“Childcare spots are at 40% capacity right now,” Samantha says. “Even if they do secure a spot, are they going to be teaching during that time?”
Samantha sees a lot of drawbacks to keeping children at home for the next school year, especially for people who are having to choose between work and their children. “It’s a difficult decision for many families and for employers,” she says. “It goes beyond the school environment.”
She believes that there are a lot of things that the government could be doing to support a safe return to school. She has thrown her support behind the Ontario Parent Action Network – Fighting for Public Education, who have put together a list of demands of the provincial government for a safe return to school which includes: fully funded five day in-class learning with cohorts of 15 students; funded, safe before and aftercare; funding for more custodians, PPE, cleaning supplies, and infrastructure repairs; a public health nurse at every school; funding for increase social and learning supports; and a minimum 21 emergency paid sick days for all workers, including parents and caregivers, in Ontario. The demands also address other issues not directly related, but may be exacerbated by COVID-19, including racism, equity, and housing security.
Samantha believes it is important for the government to put families first, because they are the bedrock of our society. “Families aren’t just a piece of the puzzle, we are the puzzle,” she says.
Elizabeth Fleury is another parent in North Grenville who has had to make a tough decision regarding sending her children to school next year. She has three daughters going into Grade 1, Grade 7, and Grade 12. Her youngest has uncontrolled asthma, and she also lives with her parents, who are seniors, and therefore more at risk of COVID-19. With three high risk individuals living under the same roof, she and her husband, Edwil, decided to keep all their children home from school and take advantage of remote learning, at least for the first semester of the school year. “I’m so happy that they are offering courses online,” she says. “We can follow the curriculum in the comfort our own home.”
Elizabeth definitely felt guilty about the decision at first. She didn’t want to keep her children from having a typical school experience, especially with her eldest going into her last year of high school. That being said, her decision was solidified when she went back to work as a part-time cook for the daycare at Académie Catholique Notre Dame. “Work is stressful with all the COVID policies,” she says. “I feel like I am going to war when I am going to work.”
She imagines that it will be same for students and teachers when the school year begins, with teachers acting more as police officers for COVID-19 policies than educators. “They’re not going to be learning,” she says. “It’s going to be very stressful.”
Elizabeth is very thankful for the option of online learning for her children. Even though she knows they will miss the social aspect of going to school, she is comfortable with their decision, because she feels it is the safer route. At the end of the previous school year, she says they found online learning difficult; but, after doing it for four months, Elizabeth is confident it will go much smoother next year. She also says she is lucky, because her husband is working remotely indefinitely, so there will always be a parent at home to keep an eye on the kids. “If it’s one thing the government did right, it’s [remote learning],” she says. “But I know it doesn’t work for everybody.”
However, Samantha says online learning will not work for her three young children. She tested it out this Summer by enrolling them in some online courses, and quickly realized that the home environment is not as conducive to learning as school. “It’s clearly not an option for us,” she says. This is compounded by the fact that the youngest has ADHD and anxiety, and needs far more attention in a learning environment than the other two. “I want to give them fair equal time, but I can’t,” she says. “I am not a teacher.”
Many parents are stressed because they don’t feel they have all the proper information to make an informed decision about whether or not to send their children to school. With the Ministry deciding which scenario to follow in early August, this doesn’t give school boards a lot of time to get everything in order for September. “Fingers crossed that they come out with good news,” she says. “This could have a long-term impact.”