No Good Options

Our province released its ‘plan’ for the reopening of schools last week.

I haven’t cried during this entire pandemic, but when I read their document, I put my head down on my desk and wept.

Their ‘plan’ is clearly based around the set of updated recommendations developed by Sick Kids (in collaboration with a number of other children’s hospitals in the province). Our premier has been using the words “Sick Kids” when he talks about the ‘plan’. (He’s also been quoted as saying that it’s not his plan, likely because the backlash has been swift and extensive. Spoiler alert, premier: you’re the PREMIER. It’s YOUR PLAN.)

Yet their ‘plan’ ignores key infection prevention and control measures recommended in the report, including smaller class sizes, physical distancing, and adequate ventilation. They are making masks mandatory for grades four and up (so they’re aware of the study from South Korea showing that children as young as ten spread the virus as efficiently as adults), but they want students to remain in a cohort (namely their class). It’s clear from the preliminary drafts from my school board that the plan is for each class to eat lunch in their classroom, which will largely eliminate any advantages to having the children wear masks in that same room for the entire rest of the school day. E.’s school has multiple interior classrooms with no windows, and most windows in the schools can only open a tiny fraction for safety reasons (making sure children can’t fall out).

They’ve been a bit more creative in how they’ve approached the high schools, with cohorts of 15 or less, a quadmester schedule, and alternating attendance, so their lack of imagination with the elementary schools makes even less sense. Half the kids at E’s school (JK-grade 8) will be age ten or older.  Yet their plan boils down to ‘business as usual with some kids wearing masks’.

They still think it will be acceptable for P. to be in a JK classroom of thirty kids and two adults.

They still think a class cap for E. of 25 kids is fine.

Yet they expect no child to have a total of more than 50 ‘direct or indirect’ contacts at school. My kids are over 50 just with their two classes. That’s not even considering the siblings of other students, and then the kids in those classes.

I’d call it a joke, except there’s nothing funny at all about this.

Q. and I feel like we’ve been hit by a truck. Q. is awake in the night for hours. I’ve returned to the deep-brain fog of the first few weeks of the pandemic, when it felt like I made every move through treacle.

We’re in crisis because we have no idea what we’re going to do (or what we should do, which is not the same thing) with our kids in September.

The first day of school is just barely over a month away. My school board is going to start phoning parents as of next Monday, asking us to indicate whether we will be sending our kids in-person or opting for remote delivery. The survey is going to run until the 17th, so we’ll stall as long as we can to see what the case numbers are doing in the province (because, oh yes, the government moved us all to Phase 3 and REOPENED THE BARS).

I’ve already drafted and sent a long letter to the premier and the minister for education and my MPP and my school board trustee. I’ve signed the petition. I’ve shared information widely on social media (including my letter, which I encouraged others to copy and tweak for their own personal situation).

So here are our options:

In-person school

  • Send them both to school (for a shortened, five hour day, presumably because they’re going to have to stagger arrival and departure times to allow for everyone to be screened)
  • Hope E. can tolerate wearing a mask for five hours a day (spoiler alert: he won’t be able to). Hope his anxiety can handle the many, many changes to the school environment he knows and has worked so hard to become comfortable in. Hope he can still have a positive learning experience even while wearing a mask, separated from all the kids in his grade except those in his class (including his best friend who is not in the same class), and maintaining distance from the kids in his class (at least there won’t be much group work. E. hates groupwork.)
  • E. is also meant to stay with the teacher who had him last year, which would be a huge advantage. But she’s older and close to retirement and did a truly kick-ass job at converting to online teaching in March. Is she coming back? Will she be teaching remotely? We’re going to have to make a decision without knowing her status.
  • P. is clearly lonely and would greatly benefit from being around her peers. Since no one expects that physical distancing would work in a kindergarten classroom, being in school might actually have some benefits for her (even if some aspects might be strange, like the teacher wearing a mask, and the screening station).
  • We’d have to cut all contact with family members, especially grandparents; revert to socially-distanced visits in backyards until the weather turns foul, and then only see my family over Zoom
  • Actual quote from one of my (many) fraught conversations with Q. over the past few days: “Is not doing a totally shit job on our teaching in the coming year a good enough reason to put our family at risk?”
  • That’s the only real advantage to this approach. Q. and I would get the breathing room to maybe, just maybe, be able to do our jobs properly. We’ve managed ok thus far because 1) COVID only  shut down the final four weeks of the winter semester; 2) Q. was on sabbatical and not teaching; 3) The course I’ve been teaching this summer was designed to be taught online from its inception and I’ve taught it before, so there was minimal prep.
  • This coming academic year has me teaching two courses and running a tutorial in a third (I may need to drop out of that course – Q. and I are still discussing it). One of the two courses I’ve taught for years, but never online. The second is a brand-new prep. Both are language courses which will require a shit-ton of work to be able to be run as online courses (mostly to avoid cheating). Q.’s sabbatical has ended, but he has an uneven teaching load: much lighter in the fall, but heavy in the winter. All of his courses will run online. None of them has been run online before.
  • We cannot prep and teach these courses without a significant amount of time and space. If the kids go to school, we’ll get both.

Remote learning

  • Our province is guaranteeing that parents can keep their kids home and opt for a remote-delivery option.
  • This will look NOTHING like the emergency online schooling E. did from mid-March until the end of June.
  • We have no firm details about what the daily schedule will look like, but there will be a schedule. The assumption is 300 minutes daily (identical to the in-person), with multiple synchronous sessions every day  (including whole group, small group, and one-on-one).
  • I counted, and if both P. and E. were signed up for this option, we’d be looking at facilitating over TEN synchronous sessions a day.
  • Basically it would be a full-time job for one of us to make sure that the kids were logging on when they were supposed to, that they had devices when they needed them, that they had been signed in when attendance was being taken, etc.
  • If we decided we couldn’t send the kids to school, we wouldn’t even bother with this for P. We’d just pull her out and home school. She can already count to 100 (and is working on counting backwards), she can do simple addition (more than just 1+something), she knows all her letters and is interested in reading. From an academic perspective, she’d be fine.
  • The remote option outline looks, to be honest, like a NIGHTMARE for E. He hated anything synchronous. What we’d need, for success, would be recorded videos outlining curriculum concepts, assignments and worksheets and activities to support that, guidelines for what to submit and when, and the chance for E. to have one-on-one conversations with someone to keep up his French. We can read the curriculum documents. We can figure out where E’s gaps are and make sure that they’re filled by the end of the year. We don’t need someone to teach him, we just need the curriculum (I recognize that this would not be the case for many parents).
  • E. is not an independent learner yet. For him to do well with remote instruction, he’d need fairly heavy support from us to make sure he did his work (unless it’s something he’s interested in, and then he’ll do it independently no problem).
  • BUT, we can’t easily support E. if we’re also managing P. That was really difficult before school finished, and Q. in particular is adamant that we can’t do it the same way again, especially if there are going to be more expectations around how the day is organized.
  • So if one of us is supporting E. when he needs it, and one of us is keeping P. happy and occupied, exactly when are we doing the work to teach our classes? This option would let us stay in our social circle, but we don’t have the kind of family support that could help facilitate this arrangement. Maybe my Mum could take the kids for one weekend a month and we could work non-stop to try to record lectures (as that’s really hard to do with them in the house)?
  • My mental health, and Q’s mental health, is also important.

Home School

  • A third alternative would be to pull them both out of school and go our own way.
  • This would be fine for P. but the issue with E. is he’s in French Immersion. If we home schooled him for the entire academic year, he’d lose his place in the FI stream. We could pull him for less than six months with no repercussions. If we pulled him for more than six months but less than the full year, he’d have to do a placement test (assuming we could get him back into the classroom when we wanted).
  • So straight up homeschooling is out.

Learning Pods/Bubbles

  • We could try to form some sort of pod or bubble with other families. Since homeschooling is out, I guess we’d be trying to find a couple of people with kids in E’s grade where we could trade the kids around so one parent was facilitating the remote learning and the other households wouldn’t have to worry about their kid on that day
  • A ‘one room schoolhouse’ option is out, I think, because we can’t do straight home schooling. If E’s at home, he needs to be attached to the remote option from the school board to protect his place in French Immersion (FI is really really good for E. If he hated it and it wasn’t working, we’d have more choices).
  • We could probably bubble with parents who have kids older than E., as they could probably manage more work independently. I have a friend who lives down the block with one kid in grade 6 and one in grade 4 and she doesn’t want to send her kids back until at least the new year. She’s interested in some sort of bubble.
  • I also have a friend who is a qualified French teacher who is already planning to stay home with his kid (grade 2) and he’s said we could talk about merging, but I don’t know yet if he’s planning on following the remote curriculum or home schooling.
  • BUT we have P. What do we do with P.? We can’t ask parents of older kids to also look after P. on the days when they’re meant to be supervising all the remote learning. And if we ship E. out somewhere else, but we still have P., we haven’t gained all that much.
  • So do we try to get childcare help for P? Do we try to set up a kindy bubble? (At this point we’d again be having to cut all contact with our families.)
  • This is one of those times where the five year age gap is really showing. No one we know is in exactly the same boat. I have one friend with a kid in E’s grade and a kid going in to SK, but I don’t know what she’s doing yet. I’ve reached out to see. (French Immersion starts here in SK, so that’s another complication as kids a year older than P. ought to be starting this school year in French.)
  • I’m also SO FRUSTRATED that my university last year waited so.damn.long to sort out my teaching. If we’d known in May 2019 how much teaching I was going to have that fall/winter, we could have kept our incredible nanny. Then we would have had our nanny during COVID and this summer, and we could have now been in discussions with her about supporting the kids for remote learning. But instead we had to let her go, and she’s so wonderful she was instantly snapped up by other families.
  • Maybe we should be hiring another nanny? But then wouldn’t it just be easier and cheaper for me to quit and manage the kids myself? (We would never do this, but it is so clear to me how devastating this pandemic is for women in the workforce because I have these thoughts many times a day.)

The Calculated Yank

  • Send the kids to school in September, keep them there until Thanksgiving, then yank them and change to remote delivery
  • This might buy Q. and I the breathing room we need to get a massive head start with the prep on our courses
  • The government and the school boards originally said that it might be a challenge to switch between deliveries, and that students might be wait-listed, or have to change at the end of a grading period, but my board has back tracked on that already and is promising a great deal more flexibility (no idea how that would work with staffing models)
  • This would be very disorienting for the kids, but probably not all that more than if they  started in person and then the schools had to close

In the grand scheme of things, we are still so, so privileged. We have not lost our jobs. We can do our jobs from home (and, in fact, we have to teach remotely for the fall semester and the university  has made it clear that even if it is safe to return to the campus for the winter, no professor will be required to do so). We have options, even if I hate them all.

Right now, it is probably safe for the kids to go back to school. Our numbers are sitting around the 0.5 cases per 100,000 people mark.

But we are a big city. And there will be a second wave.

There will come a point, I am certain, when it will no longer be safe for the kids to be in school.

My worry is that if we send them, we won’t know when that point has come until it is too late.

3 Comments

Filed under Anxiety Overload, Brave New (School) World, COVID-19

3 responses to “No Good Options

  1. Mary

    Sounds like a lot of very difficult choices. I know what I would do: choose the remote option and hire a (preferably French-speaking) nanny to manage the kids at home.

    But, obviously, everyone weighs the various risks and benefits differently.

  2. JD

    I am having the same issues trying to figure out what to do this fall. I change my mind 10 times every minute! I really want my youngest to have the opportunity to have in-person play based kindergarten (I didn’t send him to JK) before he starts “real” learning (though I think play based should be longer than just kindergarten).

    But, I don’t want to lose our bubble! My kids need to be able to see their grandparents as much as my parents need to be able to see their grandchildren. My kids will only be this age once and I don’t want them to miss out on several months of their lives!

    There is no good option and I feel like anything we choose will be wrong.

  3. This is one of those few times when I’m actually glad I don’t have children. There are no good options here, and I am so sorry you’re being faced with these impossible dilemmas, both as parents & as educators.

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