KAWARTHA LAKES – Many working parents and caregivers are feeling pressure and anxiety after the government announced at home learning has been extended until January 25.
“As COVID-19 cases continue to rise at an alarming rate throughout the province, the Ontario government, in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health and other health experts, is extending certain measures to keep students, education staff, and residents of Northern Ontario safe,” the province has stated.
According to the province, these measures are being taken to help ensure that all Ontarians stay at home as much as possible to minimize transmission of the virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. Officials also stated that they will be responsive to the fact that Northern Ontario students are not able to learn at home as effectively due to limited access to reliable Internet service.
“With the public health trends where they are across the province, our priority remains keeping students, teachers, school staff, and all Ontarians safe,” said Premier Ford. “That’s why we’re extending the remote learning period for students in Southern Ontario and the shutdown period for Northern Ontario, while continuing to provide financial relief for parents through the Support for Learners program as well as electricity rate relief for all time-of-use customers. We have to get the numbers down and today’s measures will help us continue to stop the spread of this deadly virus.”
According to Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teaching Federation of Ontario, this is a wise decision.
“Educators firmly believe that quality in-person learning, when done safely, is what is best for our students. Unfortunately, due to your government’s inaction resulting in the current spike of COVID-19 cases, this is simply not possible in many regions of the province.”
For Martha White, a local grandmother of three, the thought of taking on the task of homeschooling two of her grandkids for an extended amount of time is daunting but thankfully White is retired, allowing her to implement teaching while her daughter works as a Registered Nurse in the ER in Lindsay.
“It’s going to be tough but I also have to think of the safety of my grandchildren too, their mom works in the Emerge, that worries us everyday, we worry everyday about her safety, we pray everyday for her safety,” she said. “ So it worries me to send them back to school to face the virus, numbers are getting higher everyday, I am almost relieved it may go longer although its tough teaching them.”
Initially, White took on the role as teacher during the first shut down in March and while this isn’t her first rodeo, the struggle is real when taking on the task. Her grandkids are in Senior Kindergarten and Grade 1 and they currently share one computer. And while she is juggling Google meets, homework and running a household, she is also chasing after her granddaughter who will be two in February.
“Then I have my granddaughter running around, she plunged the toilet yesterday for us and emptied the water out of the toilet, then she drew a beautiful picture on our harvest table with magic marker,” she laughed. “Last night when we were finished, it was like yes we did it, we take a sigh of relief, we did it.”
Going forward, White will continue to provide her grandchildren with the care they need while her daughter continues to work the front lines.
“I don’t know what other parents do that don’t have grandparents that are willing to take this on,” she said. “My daughter is handling the second wave better than the first wave but its tough. She keeps saying mom if it’s too much, if it’s too much but I just cant have that, she has enough on her plate dealing with her job.”
According to Dr. David Fisman, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Toronto, the available data does not support a decision to resume in-person learning for elementary students at this time.
“There’s a 10 per cent daily increase in ICU occupancy in Ontario right now. This is not the right time to restart in-person learning,” he said. “We have to assume that there is a lot of asymptomatic COVID-19 in schools. It is irresponsible to send children and educators back to schools without knowing for sure that it is safe to do so.”
And even though some parents and caregivers may find an extended amount of time of at home learning intimidating and difficult, many parents have taken it on since the fall and have come to really enjoy it.
For Ashley and Jeff Vanuden, local parents of two daughters, choosing to keep their girls home since school began in the fall was the right decision for them.
“I have had my girls home since the fall and we have really adapted to the new change and have really enjoyed at home learning,” said Ashley. “Normally, we would love to see our girls at school with their friends but considering the circumstances, we are so thankful they’re home.”
Ashley also noted that initially she felt concerned about juggling her own at-home, full time job, while helping her girls with school work but the transition was smooth.
“The online structure has kept them engaged and they’re showing tremendous improvements in reading and writing,” she continued. “I wasn’t sure if that was possible with online learning but it has been a very positive experience.”
The province has recently stated that targeted testing done among students and staff in December 2020 confirmed that schools are not a significant source of transmission. But, following the holidays and reports of concerning behaviour during that time, the positivity rate among school-aged children has increased sharply. Officials also say the positivity rate for kids aged 12 to 13 increased from 5.44 per cent in late November, early December to nearly 20 per cent in early January.
“I have and remain firmly committed to getting students back into class as soon as possible, there is nothing more important. However, the best medical and scientific experts have been clear, while schools have been safe places for kids, the sharp rise in community transmission puts that progress and Ontario families at risk,” said Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education. “During this time, students will remain engaged in live teacher-led online learning with access to enhanced mental health and technology supports.”
According to Hammond, the ETFO has requested that when schools can safely resume in-person attendance, they work to implement asymptomatic surveillance testing in schools to ensure that officials can better understand the role that schools are playing in the spread of the virus while basing future decisions on sound data.
Hammond has also requested the provincial government provide supports to families during these times when schools are closed. He has also called for the government to acknowledge and address the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on marginalized communities, in particular racialized and low-income families.
“Many educators and other front-line workers will require childcare during such periods,” he continued. “Given that the government has failed in their responsibility to protect Ontarians, it is up to each Public Health Unit to implement measures that protect people and prevent further spread of the virus.”
For Sarah McQueen, online learning has seemed nearly impossible as her and her husband face the reality of their full time jobs. As a busy dental hygienist, her role in the medical field is draining and demanding, particularly during a pandemic.
And after long hours, protected in several masks, shields and other protective gear, the thought of facing online learning, scheduling a sitter and adapting to new online programs seems nothing but impossible.
McQueen has parents that live near by but they also face busy schedules and are not always available to take on the task of homeschooling. So with limited resources, navigating through school closures continues to leave the family of four with many uncertainties.
“It is difficult to choose between our livelihood and the safety of our family, including extended family when asking them to aide with childcare,” said McQueen. “We avoided them for the holidays and now we need to send our children to them for care.”
According to Sinead Fegan, Communications Officer at Trillium Lakelands District School Board, the board offers various options to support parents and caregivers during the pandemic.
“TLDSB has a number of resources available to parents and or guardians who are struggling to support their children with online learning,” she said. “These resources include how to log into an online classroom, a collection of useful websites for parents and guardians, our parent, student handbook which outlines protocols and expectations for students, as well as mental health and well-being resources.”
All of these materials can be found on the Board website at tldsb.ca/parentsupport/. If parents and or guardians have any further questions, they can reach out to their child’s school or classroom teachers, Fegan added.
No additional measures were announced to help parents financially through the shutdown.
Some names in this story have been changed for privacy concerns.