By Sue Tiffin
Aarica Hurl feels anxious scared and says she has “mom guilt for sure.”
Her four-year-old already had her hairstyle and outfit picked out for herfirst day of school and Hurl said “I feel like I took away thatsparkle a little” after making the decision that both her daughter who is starting junior kindergarten and 11-year-old son who becomes aGrade 6 student at Archie Stouffer Elementary School this year willstay home from school during the time of global pandemic.
Hurl is aparent in one of hundreds of families in Haliburton County decidingwhether their kids will attend school in-person enroll in school for an at-home learning program or pursue another private option to reducethe risks of spreading COVID-19.
On July 30 the Ford governmentannounced their much-anticipated return-to-school plan which called for elementary schools to reopen province-wide with in-class instructionfive days a week and secondary schools with lower risk to reopen with a normal daily schedule. Students from Grade 4 to 12 and school staff are required to wear masks while masks for students in younger grades areoptional. Parents can choose between their children attending schoolin-person or remote learning.
It’s a decision that has parentsfeeling stressed and reaching out to their social media networks to ask “what are your plans what are you doing about school?” For Hurl likemany others the emotions that come along with making the decision – ornot yet deciding – are intense.
“Worried if I’m doing the rightthing sad because this year I won’t have a school photo of him or herand she will miss all the fun junior kindergarten milestones – going toclass for the first time her first day of school photo at the schoolmaking new friends.”
Hurl is able to be with her kids during the day because she is at home from work due to being immuno-compromised.
“We have been spending lots of time going back and forth on the choices we have” she said.
Hurl said in-person school poses a risk to her own health by her kids beingpart of a bigger social bubble than what is currently recommended by the government and public health units and her family also had to consider how that could impact the people her husband works with – someconsidered to be vulnerable – at a long-term care facility.Additionally Hurl’s son is on the autism spectrum and does not likephysical contact including that caused by a mask.
“For all of thesereasons we have decided to keep them home with us” said Hurl who hasher early childhood education diploma and is prepared to teach herdaughter as she has been but hopes the school board will continue tosupply her son with the tools and technology he needs for remotelearning.
“These are questions that most of us have and need answered before choices can and should be made” said Hurl.
While school traditionally begins in September Michelle Moore is waitinguntil after the Christmas break to decide whether or not her daughterwill attend Grade 8 in person this year.
“I look at it this way I am not willing to play Russian roulette with my daughter’s health” said Moore.
Registration information was sent home to families Aug. 7 by the TLDSB for parentsto share their intent for the school year with the board so that schools can better plan for the year knowing how many students will beregistered. Re-registration is for all students including those newlyregistered and must be received by Aug. 13. Students who are notre-registered for September will be assumed to be attending at school.
“We understand that it is an immensely challenging decision to take whennot all the information is known” reads a post on the ASES Facebookpage. “There are no wrong decisions in this case just the bestdecisions for your family at this time.”
Those decisions look different based on a multitude of complex scenarios.
“The feeling I am getting from some of the parents I have been talking to they have a mixed bag” said Moore.
Her daughter enjoyed learning at home in spring when schools were closedto help flatten the curve during the pandemic and allow the health-caresystem time to prepare for a possible influx of patients. In JuneSierra achieved A’s on her report card and brought up two of her marks noting she appreciated the chance to learn independently withoutdistractions from other students.
Moore is joining alongside threeother moms with a total of eight kids to look at having a tutor teachthe kids in groups according to grade so the students keep up with theFrench immersion program they would typically be enrolled in atJ.Douglas Hodgson Elementary School.
“The rest of the studies theycan continue like they had for the three months there was no school”said Moore. “I am not comfortable sending her back. Her class has 16Grade 8 [students]…sorry the classrooms are not big enough to keepeveryone six feet apart. Now Ford said they are going to hire 500 morenurses for the school. There are over 1000 schools just in Torontoalone. I do not see one going into our little area up here – there arefour schools just in Haliburton alone.”
Moore said she was concernedwith how much time could be spent in the classroom on teaching withadded safety concerns and hygiene requirements in place.
“Theteachers and the educational assistants are going to be too busy tryingto keep the kids apart washing their hands bathroom breaks etc. Isthere going to be someone in the bathrooms every day for six hours a day cleaning?”
Moore said she was surprised the government didn’t optfor a different model such as a hybrid model or one like Moore’s ideain which students are separated into two groups and physically in-classpart of the week with Wednesdays off which she said would givecustodians time to clean teachers time to plan and would allow forsmaller class sizes to maintain social distancing.
“Yes it’s not ideal however this isn’t going to last forever “she said.
“It’s so layered” said Jane Isbister but said it was a quick decision forher and Karen Pettinella to enroll their son Rowan in school. “Right now the provincial risk is low and we have some experience of testing andtracking and isolating under our belts. So that’s encouraging.”
“Andalthough Rowan is very complicated he can’t and doesn’t put his hands in his mouth so although he has high risk factors if he gets COVID-19 he might actually be lower risk for contracting it. He is also in a PALSclass with a population of 12 to 15 including teacher and EAs so that’s also encouraging.”
Isbister said it isn’t sustainable “physicallyemotionally or financially” to keep Rowan home while she tries to workfull-time and care for other kids in the house too until the pandemicis one day over or through what she thinks will be rotating lock downsover time.
“So for his social engagement and development I alsobelieve the risk benefit analysis for us includes going to school when able.”
Busing is on Tracy Jordan’s mind. Her daughter is 15 and attends the Adult and Alternate Education Centre in Haliburton.
“I’m not as concerned about sending her back to a school – there aren’t asmany kids that attend there – as I am about sending her on the bus”said Jordan. “I think as a county we are currently fairly safe caseshave remained low. Sending kids back to school I believe will have agreater impact on those numbers especially in the elementary schools.”
In Haliburton County numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases have remainedlow among residents – with 15 cases being reported by the HaliburtonKawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit and at press time threebeing unresolved. In Ontario fewer than 100 new COVID-19 cases werereported over each of seven days last week with about 40000 totalreported cases this year about 90 per cent of those listed asrecovered.
This spring Jordan said AETC students learned over thephone and worked out of booklets or on specialized projects to suitstudents’ needs and interests.
“This past spring was pretty relaxedfor us as we just spent more time working on her mental health andkeeping her busy with fun projects then transitioned into English andhistory” she said noting her daughter is on the same page about notattending class in person just yet.
“For me the decision hasn’t been that difficult safety first” she said. “She has lots of time tofinish her education if she falls behind.”
Jordan said she thoughtthe government’s return to school plans “are full of holes” and said it was important for people to make their own decisions based on theirindividual needs and “go with your gut as a parent.”
“I would feel more confident sending her back to school if there was a vaccine andyes if the holes – i.e. elementary schools had much smaller classsizes and social distancing was able to be reached – but I think evenat that it’s going to be very difficult to stop the spread within anytype of school setting so yeah vaccine would make me comfortable.”
Nicky Robichaud said her children won’t be getting the vaccine – one of herkids is allergic to many antibiotics and has had negative reactions toimmunizations in the past.
She said she made up her mind months agothat her kids in grades four six and seven would not be returning toschool this year. Though it’s sad to her that one of her children wasnot able to experience the traditional “clap-out” ceremony as he movedfrom Stuart Baker to JDHES because one of her childrenhas multiple medical conditions she said her family “cannot risk it.”
Robichaud also has a baby at home and said she plans to homeschool her threeschool-aged children though it will be challenging. “[It’s] a learningcurve due to I have two with learning disabilities and require specialequipment computers that we have from the school but I also had toget home internet which is costing me $150 a month for them to be ableto [participate in] school” she said.
The home learning program wasstressful for Robichaud she said and continues to be so as she hasstruggled in school in the past but said she and her husband arefeeling confident in their decision.
“I think the government is nutsfor reopening especially when we don’t have the room to splitclassrooms in half” she said. “Where are those other half of studentsgoing to go how are you going to keep on top of the cleaning andseparation?”
Robichaud said she felt the community has been supportive of each person’s decision and is working together.
Caroline Kooistra said her kids are feeling great about going back to schooland joked that they are “looking forward to going for once.”
She has a 12-year-old student attending JDHES and a 15-year-old student inHaliburton Highlands Secondary School. Working full-time during thespring while also trying to keep up with the kids’ schooling wasexhausting for Kooistra who said she requires some assistance for herone son’s learning needs and doesn’t have the means to pay privately.The family has been enjoying their summer her older son working atSubway and the kids being self-sufficient while she works spending time at the skate park or in the lake at their house.
Kooistra said she is not concerned about the return to school.
“I believe it’s time” she said. “They need routine and we manage dailywith the new norm now so the next step is school. I welcome it [and]won’t put fear into my kids so they manage well … I feel 100 per centconfident. I believe that this is going to be around for some time andmaybe just the first of many pandemics to come – who knows – and theireducation is also important.”
Kooistra said the conversations she sees in some forums can be polarizing.
“I just have a different point of view on the matter but you can’t argueit there’s no right or wrong as far as I’m concerned” she said.
Kooistra said those who make the choice to send their kids to school shouldn’tbe seen as being reckless echoing a call on social media for parents to support each other through decisions.
“…it’s an individual choice. Please don’t judge.”
Marg Cox executive director of Point in Time Centre for Children Youth and Parents said it’s certainly difficult for parents or anyone to knowwhat’s best during a time of pandemic when fear and anxiety can beheightened.
“Parents in the end are the ones that know theirchildren best” she said. “They are also the ones that know themselvesbest. Families have to make the best choice they can with theinformation they have access to.”
Cox noted that as with anydecision weighing pros and cons is important. “For some familieshowever the necessity of getting back to work might make it verydifficult to choose any other option than sending their children back to school” she said. “Lack of childcare and in-school options have really added to the financial hardship for many families. In additionstudents have suffered from lack of routine lack of stimulation lackof peer interaction. Social isolation has a huge negative impact on themental health of many. Parents feeling like they are in pressurecookers juggling working from home trying to help their children withhome schooling and figure out how to navigate grocery shopping plusfinancial stress on top for many has not been good for most people’smental and physical health.”
Cox said school boards are working closely with public health and will do their best to keep students as safe as possible.
“We know that students will quickly adapt to wearing masks and followingnew protocols” she said. “We also know that for some students theyreally feel like they need to be there be with their friends and thatthey learn better in a classroom setting. Lack of connectivity andsocial isolation for some has presented an uneven playing field forschool.”
“All factors to be considered but at the end of the day weall have to do what we think is best with the information we have at the time” she said. “It doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds later oradapt.”
For more information regarding re-registering for school and the information about a return-to-school plan thus far visit: https://tldsb.ca/return-to-
For parents and caregivers interested in tips support or help Point inTime can be reached Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at705-457-5345.