“Teachers are in an impossible situation”: Parents share their back-to-school concerns

“Teachers are in an impossible situation”: Parents share their back-to-school concerns

Education Minister Stephen Lecce recently announced reopening plans for Ontario schools. Elementary students will be returning full time, in maximum class sizes, while high school students get split into cohorts of 15 students attending on alternating days. Only students from Grades 4 to 10 will be asked to wear masks at school. We asked seven GTA parents how they felt about the new protocols. 

Daniel Lipton, 39, real estate broker with two-year-old Alexander, who’s starting at McMurrich Co-operative Playschool, five-year-old Annabel, who attends McMurrich Junior Public School in the TDSB,  and Andrea Herschorn, 37, doctor of cosmetic medicine

Daniel: “My wife and I are struggling with finding the right balance between safety and education. After six months at home, we’re all ready for a change in routine, especially our daughter, Annabel. We’re more concerned about our kids’ social development than their education. Our daughter constantly pushes back on everything we say and do at home but is much more polite and well-behaved among her peers at school.

“I’m okay with school being five days a week, but it’s not nearly as important to me as the safety protocols they put in place. Ultimately, I’m not confident about the reopening plan because there are too many moving parts. I’m worried that parents who need to work will send their sick kids to school anyway. It’s the same concern I’ve had with camps—it’s impossible to restrict and monitor everyone’s behaviour all the time.

“My daughter is going stir crazy. She’s very confident and social, and she thrives in group interaction, so she’s excited to go back to school and see her friends again. The last few months have included a lot of playing on the iPad by herself and eating snacks. We really want to see her social skills continue to grow, and that depends on being around her friends.

“If the teachers can keep the kids apart and if there are stringent protocols in place, like handwashing, sanitizing work stations and staggered lunch and recess times, then we’re okay with younger kids not having masks. We have more concerns about Annabel, because she’s got a bit of a defiant streak and will probably not follow protocols. We’re less worried about our two-year-old, Alexander, since the nursery program is smaller and it’s easier to keep kids apart. 

“My wife is a physician and we have many doctor friends, so we’re also keeping an ear open to what they recommend. We don’t have any other specific protocols aside from a rigorous home regimen: straight to the shower after school, clothes straight into the laundry machine and complete sanitizing of school bags and books. Ultimately, I believe schools need to reopen and kids need and crave the structure that school provides.”

Debbie King, 44, group fitness and community leader, 10-year-old Naomi, entering Grade 6 in the Toronto District School Board, and Anthony King, 47, freelance writer

Debbie: “We’d hoped to see a plan for a safe, full-time return to classroom learning for elementary students. We’re feeling relatively confident in our personal family situation, with our daughter entering a small school of only 200 children, where it will be easier to manage class sizes and crowds. We’re pleased to see that she’s excited to go back. However, we’re concerned about how the reopening plan impacts the greater community, and specifically those disproportionately affected by Covid-19, including Black and Indigenous families. These are the same students who are already the target of racism and were in a vulnerable situation before Covid. Now they’re made even more vulnerable. There is a lack of safe schooling options for Black and Indigenous families in lower-income brackets where financial barriers exist to private schools, learning pods and other cost-based alternatives to unsafe public schools.

“With the current plan, we’re sure to see outbreaks in schools. Our number-one issue is that the province has not funded more teachers to allow for smaller class sizes—of 15 children or less—at elementary schools, which would help prevent the spread. School communities will also be affected by outbreaks and the spread from other environments, such as restaurants and workplaces, because students can contract the virus from their parents. There’s a $50-million investment in public-health nurses, but we’re unclear about what specific role they’ll play in prevention.

“Our daughter, Naomi, was doing reasonably well during the lockdown. She kept busy with remote school learning, crafts, puzzles and a bedroom redesign project, but she missed having playdates with her friends and attending the school’s spring events. She’s been doing even better over the summer months, as we’ve been able to enjoy more outdoor time with friends and family, with bike rides and trips to the park. She’s definitely looking forward to going back to school. This is her first year of middle school at a specialized arts school, something she’s been excited about for a long time.

“Students under 10 won’t have to wear masks, because they’ve shown a lower likelihood of transmitting Covid-19. And we can see the practical challenges that mask-wearing poses—young children may refuse to put on masks, and it will be impossible for teachers to make sure every student is wearing their mask properly. However, without the smaller class sizes that medical experts, members of parliament, educators and families have demanded, we think that children under Grade 4 not having to wear masks, along with large class sizes, will contribute to overall risk for families that could be better mitigated with the proper financial investment. We would have liked to have seen money put toward touchless water filling stations and sinks, along with improved ventilation in buildings in conjunction with funding for teachers to allow for lower class sizes.

“Because our daughter is attending a smaller school, we feel somewhat more comfortable expecting that safety measures are easier to plan and implement, especially compared to the larger 800-plus-student school she previously attended. Had this not been the case, and given the proper direction and tools, homeschooling or some sort of community learning is something we would have considered.” 

Photo by Samantha Keay

Elizabeth Geddes, 38, program leader of English/ESL at the TDSB, and Ewan Geddes, 52, secondary teacher at the TDSB, with seven-year-old Alexander and eight-year-old Olivia, both attending WillowWood School

Elizabeth: “My daughter Olivia has a sensory processing disorder. Last year, we moved her out of her public school in the TDSB and she now attends a small independent school called WillowWood. She’s grown immensely in this new program and we were so pleased to see the excellent work done by her teachers and their entire team to provide all students daily support, including individualized lessons on Zoom.

“Our son Alexander has ADHD. His academic needs have made us consider moving him into private schools in the past, but the astounding recklessness of the Ministry of Education’s plan for September has driven us to move him. Just this week, we sold our dream home in Don Mills—the home we wanted to live in forever—so we could afford the tuition for private school and prioritize his safety in a smaller school. So he’ll be attending WillowWood in September, too.

“Our kids responded to homeschooling very differently. Within two weeks of the declaration that Covid-19 is a global pandemic, Olivia’s private school had adopted Zoom and delivered whole-group, small-group and even one-on-one lessons daily in the morning, with weekly afternoon art therapy and additional reading lessons. While we had to be right beside her during her lessons to help her focus and figure out the technology, she learned a lot and had a good experience. 

“Alexander’s schooling was different. His public-school teacher shifted to Google Classroom right away, reached out to us regularly by phone, email and text, and held weekly whole-class visits and lessons via Google Meet. It was much more flexible in terms of how and when schooling would be done and, in that regard, was fairly easy to work with for me and my husband. But this model of online learning was disastrous for Alexander. Every day was a fight. He hated every second of it—even the Google Meet classes, which only reminded him of the friends he couldn’t play with. After a few ambitious and optimistic weeks (including now-quaint colour-coded calendars), we dropped it entirely. He’s still reading and doing math, and learning all kinds of interesting stuff—just not through formal school.

“The return to school has been incredibly anxiety-provoking for me and my husband, Ewan, who is also a secondary teacher with the TDSB. My husband isn’t feeling confident about having to teach at a public school. Even though Toronto is in Phase 3 of its recovery, nothing has changed about Covid-19—not its ability to spread, not its ability to make us sick, not its ability to kill the most unfortunate one per cent of its sufferers.

“My husband’s school has a population of over a thousand students, and his usual class size is about 32. With only weeks to go before the school year begins, he has received no specific guidance as to how he can keep his students and himself safe in September. While his students will attend on alternating days, he will attend daily. We are in constant talks about what we can do to refine a system to reduce his likelihood of bringing the virus home. We’ll be handwashing and sanitizing, changing out of clothes and showering immediately on returning home, keeping school shoes in the car and disinfecting everything we touch.

“Having more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience between us, we think we have a pretty good sense of what high school looks like. There will be classrooms with 15 students wearing masks and practising as much physical distancing as possible. With sanitizing on entry to and exit from classrooms and no movement or grouping of students during lessons, everyone would probably be quite safe. 

“But hallways and stairwells are something else entirely. Between classes and during breaks, hallways are mosh pits and stairwells are rushing rivers with salmon leaping upstream. Even at half capacity, the hallways and stairwells of my husband’s school will fill with 500 students as classes change. How are 500 students going to maintain physical distance as they move through that school? How long will it take for them to travel from class to class? This plan presents a timetabling, staffing and room allocation nightmare. Never mind that we are asking teenagers, for whom social interactions are so critical to the development of self and sense of wellbeing, not to high-five, or hug, or flock together as teens are wont to do. 

“The reopening plan seems far more likely to create outbreaks than to prevent them. All of the public-health advice centres on avoiding crowded, enclosed spaces and close contact. Schools are all of these, in buildings with notoriously poor ventilation and a predictable lack of soap, paper towels and hand sanitizer. If an outbreak happens at my husband’s school, we have decided that he will stay home until there are no further cases. In that situation, my husband would request to shift to fully online teaching. The TDSB has indicated that it’ll work with teachers requiring accommodations for issues like self-isolation, family needs and mental health and well-being.

“If an outbreak were to occur in our kids’ smaller private school, we have full confidence that the school would shut and resume online learning just as it did in March. Self-monitoring and screening at school does little to reassure us that schools will only house healthy students. Every teacher has taught a kid who clearly is unwell and should have stayed home. Our kids are still completely capable of spreading the virus. As they intermingle, so do their germs. Kids are disease vectors at the best of times. They could still be bringing the virus home to their parents.

“Among my teaching colleagues, there is a deep conviction that teaching pods are going to hurt public education. Because neighbourhood schools are funded based on per-student attendance, pulling students out of the public system means pulling funding from neighbourhood schools. For the families still in the public system, there will be less funding available. The same problem exists with private schools, frankly, but the pods essentially represent another tier of education—another way that education is being fragmented. In either case—the move to private (as we have done) or a pod—families can continue to support their neighbourhood schools with involvement in school councils, contributions to fundraising efforts and drop-offs of the ongoing necessities: soap, sanitizer and toilet paper.

“At the core of the plan is not students’ learning or safety or socialization. It is the need for children to be looked after so their parents can return to work to keep the economy from collapsing. If those who held power had the courage to say so, the political will to fund education adequately in these exceptional times, and the bravery to impose taxes on the highest earners and corporations in Ontario to secure that funding, things would be very, very different. I would have liked to see the ministry fund the leveraging of other community spaces like community centres and libraries as learning sites, better funding for building retrofits that would improve air quality and provisions to support other employees in the province who need to stay home with sick or exposed family members (through such things as guaranteed paid sick leave or grants for employers) that have been made to keep parents from sending sick kids so they don’t lose their jobs.”

Andrew Thomas, 41, retired Canadian Armed Forces medic, with eight-year-old Skylar, 10-year-old Raine and nine-year-old Chase, who all attend school in York Region, and Seanna Thomas, 39, holistic nutritionist

Seanna: “I feel apprehensive about school reopening. I’ve had open conversations with my kids about Covid and how they’re feeling about going back to school. Each of them feels differently. Chase is nervous about getting other people sick. He’s not concerned so much about himself, but more so about his grandparents, since we visit them often. He doesn’t want to have to quarantine or be the reason our family has to quarantine. But Raine and Skylar seem okay with everything as long as they have opportunities to wash their hands and practise social distancing. My kids are eager to see their friends, because they really miss the social part of being in school. No matter how we try to keep them engaged with their friends online, whether playing Battleship or chess over Zoom, it’s just not the same.

“I think it’s a good decision to allow kids under Grade 4 not to wear masks. Kids will touch their face more often when wearing a mask, and I would rather they focus on learning. But now I think a large portion of the teacher’s day will be asking children to stay apart and to stop touching their face. Also, it will be difficult enough to enforce handwashing and social distancing with young children. I don’t trust that all kids will adhere to the rules.

“Homeschooling isn’t an option for me because I work full time from home and I’m trying to keep my business running. I’m an entrepreneur and I’m developing online programs which involve Zoom meetings and phone calls. So my kids will be going back to school full time, but only if I feel it is safe to do so. Their safety is my number-one priority. But, to be honest, I don’t know what school configuration would make me feel safest—I think keeping them at home. But I want them to go back for their mental health and happiness. I just want to be sure they are safe, we are safe, and we keep the virus from spreading to others who would be greatly affected. We’ll make the best decisions for our children and our families. And no matter what everyone chooses, we shouldn’t judge because you never know what each family’s situation may be.”

Julie Roberts, 47, stay-at-home-mom, with 10-year-old Juliette, who attends Montrose Junior Public School in the TDSB, and 15-year-old Adrienne, who attends Rosedale Heights School of the Arts

Julie: “I am sorely disappointed by the school reopening plans, but I’m not surprised. Both my daughters will be going back, but it’s not without reservation. I think outbreaks in schools are inevitable. If there’s an outbreak at a school or if one kids gets infected, then what is plan B and C and D? Is there going to be mass panic with everyone pulling their kids out and schools shutting down until further notice? Is there a plan in place for teachers to immediately switch to online learning? 

“My husband and I are on the same page, and we just want to see what the government will do once an outbreak happens. With my family, we have enhanced awareness around hygiene, but we are trying to live life as normally as possible. We don’t want our children living in fear. We go out, we socialize, we go to patios and go shopping and do errands, all with the knowledge that we need to stay aware. Going back to school is part of our ‘life as normal as possible’ routine. 

“As for safety precautions, I trust my schools and the teachers there. Homeschooling isn’t an option for me because my teenager knows more than me, and my 10-year-old drives me up the wall when I’m helping her with school work.

“I’m still concerned about access to masks and hand soap and ensuring that kids wash their hands throughout the day. There is going to be enhanced cleaning and disinfecting, but how often will that be happening? 

“I think a smaller student-to-teacher ratio and using every available space in the school—like gyms, cafeterias and even outdoor spaces—would help me feel more comfortable that kids can spread out. The board would need to hire more teachers to make this possible, but I doubt that would happen because the ministry usually tends toward saving money, and they can’t hire more teachers if they don’t receive more government funding. 

Lilly Janssen, 47, stay-at-home mom, with 11-year-old ​Jack Janssen, who attends Morse Street Junior Public School in the TDSB

Lilly: “​I am feeling very anxious about the upcoming school year. By September, the Covid status in Toronto could change, but at this point in time, I feel like I’m in a no-win situation. Sending my son to school risks our physical health because he could bring the virus home, but not sending him risks our family’s mental health because I’m tasked with juggling a busy schedule and child care as a single mom. Plus, the kids aren’t out socializing. 

“I’m extremely disappointed in the province’s plan to send kids back to school for five full days a week. We are depending on kids ranging from Grades 4 to 12 to continuously wear masks, wash hands and social distance. This puts teachers in a terrible position. Not only are they required to teach our children, but also actively monitor them. And what is the recourse if a student decides to openly reject the guidelines? Currently, very few of my son’s friends are social distancing, and fewer wear masks. My son feels left out because he sees his friends frolic freely, while he is asked to play at a distance. He respects my decision as I am immunocompromised, as well as being the sole support to my mom, who is at-risk due to age. If kids don’t practise social distancing rules and wear masks now, will they do it all day every day at school?

“I have no option but to keep Jack at home. When Jack does not return to school, he will have to complete the program virtually with remote learning. We did this already for three months before the end of school and it was a miserable experience for us both. He’s in a French-immersion program, and although my French is passable and I am able to help translate, there is no way I can hold conversations all day with him in French. 

“I have already connected with a friend in Hamilton regarding sharing a French tutor online. It costs $60 an hour. It’s an expense I can’t really afford but will have to manage. I would be more than grateful to connect with like-minded parents whose kids need that social interaction (while distancing) in the form of a teaching pod. I don’t think this is an option, but I’m also considering sending him to school for the first hour so that he can connect with the teacher and his friends.

“I’m frustrated that the plan allows universities to be 100 per cent online and high schools to have modified learning and attendance. The kids and adults who are more capable of self-regulation will be the ones with an opportunity to stay home and socially distance. 

“The reopening plan does little to prevent outbreaks—they only have an idea of how they would manage suspected outbreaks after the fact. Kids could be asymptomatic and carrying the virus, which would be difficult for teachers to detect. Plus, teachers might feel responsible for monitoring every little sniffle. But we’re entering flu season, which means lots of related symptoms and teachers constantly questioning whether it’s a common cold or coronavirus. I feel that’s just too much responsibility for the teachers 

​”It is completely asinine to not ask kids under Grade Four to wear a mask. It’s basically admitting that there is no way to isolate or socially distance young kids, so let there be a free-for-all and hope for the best. The teachers are in an impossible situation. Young children have difficulty self-regulating, which means that teachers will unfairly incur all of the responsibility. If a kid gets coughed or sneezed on, licked or hugged by one of their classmates, how will teachers manage the complaints from parents?”

Emil Calixterio, 43, insurance claims adjuster, with seven-year-old Harper, who attends school in the Toronto District School Board, two-year-old Noa and Trisha Enriquez, 40, blogger and founder of No Tummy Mommy Inc.

Emil: “To tell you the truth, I’m feeling a little uneasy about sending Harper back to school. I’m not feeling confident about the province’s plans for schools. I just don’t know how kids will social distance in class and at recess. And I don’t know how the teachers will police that.

“I didn’t think the province would go head-first into a full week of school right off the bat. It’s almost a sink-or-swim scenario, just jumping in like everything is okay. These are some uncertain times we are living in, and kids feel the stress too. I was hoping that they would have implemented a gradual return-to-school schedule for the first month, see how that goes and then decide. We’re thinking about homeschooling Harper for the first month just to see how our school handles situations that may arise with Covid.

“I think an outbreak is inevitable in schools as flu season falls smack dab during the school year. If an outbreak happens at our school, we are absolutely pulling Harper out. Our kids are doing great at home, though. They get to see us 24/7 and we get to see them. Harper is eager to see her classmates but has expressed some uneasiness with how she is going to social distance in class when there are 20-plus students in there.  

 “It’s tough enforcing mask-wearing with kids under 10. Harper often says she can’t breathe when it’s on for the short time she has to wear them inside coffee shops when she comes with me. I don’t know how she would do it all day in school or at recess, so I think it’s a good thing she doesn’t have to.

“If we needed to homeschool, my wife thankfully has a pretty flexible job and could do it. But I would be afraid of the social isolation aspect of it, Harper not being able to see her friends and play at recess. She loves to play with her friends and that would really affect her.”