Back to school blues

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been grateful that I have not been responsible for school-aged children. Frankly, I don’t know how parents (and, let’s be honest, it is mostly mothers we are talking about) have managed to juggle parenting, their jobs and their children’s schooling.

Now that the province has announced its back to school strategy (sort of), school boards are coming up with their plans (sort of) and parents must decide whether to send their kids back into the classroom or keep them at home for online learning, I am happier than ever that I am not responsible for any children. The plans, such as they are, seem vague and inconsistent, and the factors to consider are many.

One more weapon for abusers

As I have written about before, intimate partner violence has increased during the pandemic. Abusers have found myriad ways to manipulate situations that have arisen as a result of COVID-19 protocols, whether it is refusing to follow existing court orders about where the kids spend their time or claiming they can’t pay child support because they are not working. There is no end to the ways in which some abusers are able to turn any situation to their advantage.

I know this, but nonetheless was taken aback when, two days after the province announced the return to school strategy, I received an email from the frontline services manager at Luke’s Place asking how staff could support women whose former partners were refusing to agree to their plans for the children’s schooling this fall.

As if figuring this out isn’t hard enough without factoring in an abuser who says no just for the sake of making trouble. We quickly put together a resource to assist women in that situation and are hoping the courts deal with such bullying tactics quickly and forcefully.

In-school?

As I listened to my daughter’s partner, an elementary school teacher, describe what she is expected to do in her classroom, I almost wept. She teaches primary kids, who move around a lot, touch everything, taste many things and are used to spending what little time they sit at group tables.

All tables are being removed from the classroom, to be replaced with desks, which will be placed in rows facing forward. No activities that allow touching of just about anything. While the kids don’t have to wear masks, she has to wear both a mask and a face shield. Physical distancing. No use of playground equipment. No field trips. And lots more “musts” and “don’ts.” As she said:

“By the time I finish watching everyone and saying no, no, no, no, there will be no time for learning.

When my daughter started to explain the high school set-up, I had to tell her to stop: it was so confusing that just hearing it made my head want to explode.

Most kids need and want to be with their friends, most teachers need and want to teach, and most parents want to be free of unplanned-for home schooling and need to concentrate on their paid work, if they have it. All of this would argue in favour of getting kids back into classrooms.

But, as People for Education, an independent not-for-profit organization that works to strengthen the public education system in Canada, says, “back to normal” is not a reasonable goal for this fall. It recommends a “gentle return model”, using a phased-in approach, which is set out on its website.

As for a plan to manage the COVID-19 outbreaks that are sure to be upon us within weeks of the return to the classroom, well, the powers that be don’t seem to have gotten around to thinking about that yet.

At home?

Leaving kids at home to learn online brings challenges, too. Not all parents are equipped to supervise online learning. Not all homes have reliable internet access or the technology needed for online learning. Small homes don’t give children the space they need to do their school work out of the way of other household activities.

What about children whose families are homeless? Kids with learning disabilities who need the in-person support of teachers and teaching assistants?

It’s a matter of class

The schooling challenges poor kids always face have been exacerbated by the present situation. As retired family court justice Marvin Zuker recently wrote:

“COVID-19 has clearly exposed a great deal of inequity in our education system. Research shows that school closures have widened achievement gaps. . . . This is not the time for us to retreat into the comfort of our own advantages. . . When we think of children in low-income households, we cannot think of digital equity. . . Our schools . . . also provide a social setting, health services and very often meals.”

Some economically privileged families are taking their kids out of the public school system in favour of a school pod, which will bring a small number of children together to be taught, in person, by a tutor hired by the parents. Unless we want to see Ontario devolve into a two-tiered education system, this is a bad idea and, as Hannah Sung writes, should be opposed:

“[I]f your family has privilege, as mine does, and you’re planning a school pod, I have one giant plea. Put your pod aside for the moment. Redirect your time and energy into pressuring the Ontario government to make in-person school safe for all students.”

What would work?

I am not an educator, but I like to think I have common sense. I have taken some time to read what smart educators have to say about how school reopening can happen in a way that is safe.

As People for Education says, a phased-in approach is best.  Doug Ford’s government needs to mandate smaller class sizes everywhere in the province, regardless of the cost. Schools should be moving into other public spaces: arenas, libraries, and so on. Serious money needs to be spent on school ventilation systems, not the mere $50 million already committed.

As Sung writes:

“The government should be using bold thinking, informed by the outdoor classrooms of the past to get this generation of children through this pandemic with a minimum of lasting harm.”

While going to school outside won’t work indefinitely, it would work for a couple of months, giving government, teachers, administrators and public health experts time to fine tune a safe return to classrooms.

Whether or not we are parents of kids in school, we need to let the provincial government know that we expect a strategy — soon — to make school a safe place for all children and young people.

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