Christie Vickers simply doesn’t know how her two daughters will make it through the next two weeks of online school.
And the York Region parent says she’s not sure how she will push them to log in for class, after the difficult year they had last year with online school, when she ended pulling them out two months early to “save their mental health.”
“My kids are not the same kids they were three years ago. They’ve kind of lost the … kidlike sparkle — the carefree sparkle,” said Vickers. “They’re stressed, they’re sad, they’re depressed. It’s not the way it should be.”
Across the province on Wednesday, families once again faced the difficult task of managing their children’s online schooling, while juggling parenting responsibilities and their own jobs.
Some parents see the move to online learning as a relief with COVID-19 daily numbers and hospitalizations hitting record highs. But many say they feel overwhelmed, frustrated and angry that despite the many sacrifices they have made over the past few years, their children’s education has been disrupted again.
“They have no school, no extracurriculars; their friends won’t play with them because they are scared,” said Vickers. “I’m going from one room of a crying child to another room of a crying child. It’s just not feasible, especially for working parents.”
Vickers is unsure how to push her kids when she herself is feeling defeated about this closure, and the possibility it may be extended.
“As an adult, as a mother, I’m falling apart. My friends are falling apart. We don’t even text each other, because we are tired — and there’s not much to say.”
On Monday, Premier Doug Ford warned that Ontario faces “a tsunami of new cases in the days and weeks ahead” and ordered that schools switch to online learning until at least Jan. 17. On Wednesday, Ontario health officials reported 2,081 people are in hospital with COVID-19, and 288 are in intensive care.
Parent Miranda Mathews-Pike said she was happy to hear that schools would be closed for two weeks, and hopes that will give schools time to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to teachers and those who may have caught COVID-19 during the holidays a chance to recover.
“To be honest, I was surprised when I heard school was going ahead as scheduled, as it seems like everyone has gotten it,” said Mathews-Pike, who said her whole family, including her kids in grades 8 and 9 in York, caught the virus at Christmas. “I think the online is doable, but just for a short time.”
Ontario children had already spent at least 26 weeks in online school — longer than any other jurisdiction in the country — before Wednesday’s move to remote learning.
But unlike the first time Ontario schools were shut down due to COVID-19, families are tired of lockdowns, and say that the risks of the virus have to be balanced with the risks to the mental health and emotional well-being of children.
In a release this week, the Children’s Health Coalition, made up of pediatric hospitals and centres, said the “harms to children and youth while schools are closed are significant,” and urged the province to “do everything to instill confidence in families and education workers” to open schools on Jan. 17.
Toronto parent Aynsley Deluce says the continued shutdowns are simply “not working.”
“The teachers are doing their absolute best, but this system was not designed to be online,” she said. “The pressure it puts on them, and on families is … too much. It’s incredibly stressful for everyone.”
Deluce, who has a daughter in kindergarten and a son in Grade 3, said like many families, “we have done literally everything we have been asked to do. We have our max vaccinations, we have N95s for us and kids, we have kept away from our parents and kept our social circles small,” she said.
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“We saw Omicron coming … why are we always playing catch up?” said Deluce, asking why the government has taken so long to get teachers adequate PPE, boosters and invested in ways to make classrooms safer. “The worry is the long-term impacts on behavioural health on kids and adults … and you can’t reverse it now.”
Dr. Anna Banerji, a public health professor at the University of Toronto, agrees. She hopes the two-week delay, which she believes was needed to prevent outbreaks, will be used to conduct vaccine blitzes for students and teachers, and catch up on improving ventilation, distributing high-quality masks and other measures to make schools safe.
Three years into the pandemic, education experts know the cumulative cost of school closures — from learning loss to deteriorating mental and physical health to impeded social and emotional development.
“We have seen very, very unequal impacts, and what we haven’t seen in Ontario is any kind of reckoning with the cost for kids … we haven’t seen any efforts to develop large-scale plans to catch up,” said Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University specializing in education and inequality. “We are undermining the future we all want and we are doing it on the backs of the most vulnerable kids.”
Without significant and immediate investment into a recovery plan, that could translate to lifelong and even generational ramifications, experts say.
“All kids in Canada, with very few exceptions, are experiencing disruptions to their academic trajectory right now. But for some that disruption is more like a derailment,” said Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in children’s mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa. “That’s why we talk about being on the cusp of a generational catastrophe.”
There is an urgent need for accessible mental health screening, diagnosis and treatment for children and youth, she said.
There are more tools available in January 2022 than ever before — including safe, effective vaccines for adults and children — and an understanding of how the virus works, which is why this particular school closure is so infuriating, said Prachi Srivastava, a professor at Western University who researches education disruptions.
It shows a continued and inexcusable failure to treat schools as an essential service and do what is needed to keep them open, she said.
“Education is a fundamental right. I don’t have a right to eat at a restaurant or go to a Raptors game. But it is mandated by law that I do have a right to an education,” she said.
She hopes the current collective frustration will result in change — including a multi-year education recovery plan.
“Without it we not going to be able to move forward,” Srivastava said.
Peel Region’s Romana Siddiqui, with the Ontario Parent Action Network, said she’s trying to remain hopeful that the move to online for her three children will be temporary.
“It’s hard for everyone, and with the rising cases I understand why we have had to pivot to online,” she said. But last-minute changes can damage families as much closures themselves, she said.
“That constant unpredictability is frustrating for kids, for families and businesses,” she said. “In this situation, parents have had to figure out child care, Wi-Fi, access to devices in just over 24 hours. That’s no way to plan.”
Noor Javed is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering city news with interest in 905 municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved
Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati
Lex Harvey is a Toronto-based newsletter producer for the Star and author of the First Up newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @lexharvs
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