Windsor-Essex parents say that while precautions are needed to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, the return to online learning presents its own set of challenges for their kids.
The provincial government announced a number of new COVID-19 measures on Monday. Among those was shifting Ontario students to online learning for at least two weeks, starting Wednesday.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Aaron Bergeron, who has two children in school, and is working and attending university himself.
“I understand … that we do need to take some precautions,” he said. ” To be honest, though, now that we have children being vaccinated, now that we have all of these new precautions in place, like at home testing and that kind of stuff, it just seems ridiculous to me.”
“How is the government expecting us to maintain full-time jobs?”
Bergeron noted his situation is helped by the fact that his classes have also been pushed back to Jan. 17.
“As long as the kids go back to school in-person on the 17, I should be fine,” he said. “But if they push it back further, I’ll be in a situation where I’m not only now going to have to do homeschooling for my six year old, homeschooling for my 13 year old, but also my own schooling as well.”
Brooke Watorek said her kids — age six and 13 — were doing “exceptionally well” with in-person learning so far this school year.
“The past two years have been extraordinarily hard on them,” she said. “This year has been a godsend that they’ve been back in class. Things have been moving along nicely and then the door has slammed in our faces again.”
Watorek said she was “gutted” when she heard the provincial announcement on Monday.
“Our kids go to a private board school and our teachers, our administration and our board members have done every single thing that the government has asked,” she said. “There are HEPA filters in every single classroom. There’s social distancing. There are masks worn at all times. Every single box that we could possibly check has been checked, we’ve got cohorts, we’ve got no bussing, so they’re not mixing.”
“And we’re being painted with the same paint brush across the province, regardless of what school board does.”
Watorek said her 13-year-old daughter is “devastated on a social level,” as she enjoys class. Her son, meanwhile, does not do well with online learning.
“He’s much too busy,” she said. “He needs to have a teacher present where they’re guiding him and they’re teaching him and they’re sitting with him.”
There’s strain on Watorek and her husband, as well, as they own two businesses in the Windsor-Essex area.
“He needs to be on site, so that leaves me here at home,” she said. “I have two full time jobs that I’m trying to work that I need to do after the kids are done school.”
“Trying to divide our attention between being a full time teacher and being two full time jobs, it’s extraordinarily stressful,” Watorek said. “It’s hard on everyone. It doesn’t make for a good home atmosphere. It doesn’t make for a good learning atmosphere, and it certainly isn’t productive for work.”
Christine Turingia, whose six-year-old son attends Grade 1, said she has mixed emotions about the provincial shift.
“Being somebody who’s fully vaxxed and boosted, I was concerned about the numbers that we were seeing and having a child go back in,” she said. “I also work in the school, so I know what the school setting is like in that the ideal measures aren’t always possible.”
“Safety-wise, I don’t think it was a bad decision,” Turingia said. “I’m OK with it, if it’s not extended repeatedly.”
As a parent, Turingia said she doesn’t have child care for her son. However, she’s a supply teacher, so while she can teach remotely as well, doing so means she can’t help her son as much as she’d like during the day.
School transmission not a driver of community cases
Dr. Kirk Leifso, a Kingston-based pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases, said he’s disappointed in the provincial approach.
“I think that it’s understandable, given that the trajectory of Omicron, and the pressures it puts on the workforce,” Leifso told CBC News on Monday. “But I still think that there likely could have been ways to keep kids going to in-person learning while while keeping pressure on curbing cases in the community.”
Leifso said schools are controlled environments, where other measures — such as masking and social distancing — can be enforced.
“None of this is about going back with no layered mitigation strategies in place,” he said. “This would be going back to school with the layered intervention strategies that are there.”
“And there are certain things that just we know now, which is that transmission within schools is is not a driver of cases in the community,” Leifso said. “It mirrors or is lower than cases in the community. And being out of school does not mean that they are not interacting with other people.”
Isolation can affect the mental health of children, as well, Leifso said.
“Most of the child health organizations, at least in the province, have been talking about the direct harm of social isolation that has been going on,” he said. “I don’t think that we should be minimizing that impact.”
“Children who suffer from mental health impacts, these are adverse childhood experiences that can set them up for problems throughout their life.”