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Back to School in the Time of COVID-19

Lucy Sterezylo
December 04, 2020
Categories: Child Care 

By Lucy Sterezylo


Mornings are fuller these days. Get the kids up, dressed, fed, teeth brushed, make lunches and fill the water bottles. Did I remember to wash the masks last night? Shoes, jackets, backpacks and masks on; extra masks and hand sanitizer packed -- check! Was I supposed to sign last night’s homework? Okay, let's get out the door. We're not going to be late (again) today. Wait, do I have the signed COVID-19 checklist forms with us?!


Whether we have children attending school in-person or virtually, the pandemic adds a few extra layers to parenting. The extra items on our daily to-do lists, the constant navigating of ever-changing guidelines, not to mention the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, all leave us wondering: Did I choose the right school delivery method for my family? 


During a recent YWCA Toronto lunch and learn, Back to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic, I had the opportunity to hear from a panel of co-workers sharing their experiences parenting school-aged children in a time of a global health crisis. What this looks like is different for every household, but the shared feeling is that this is a very difficult moment for parents. It is clear that there are so many challenges, and we are all just trying our best to do right by our children, whom we love so dearly. 


From parents with children just beginning their schooling to those with children in middle school, there was a lot to discuss. Juvy, a Registered Early Childhood Educator (RECE) with the English Language Skills Development Program “sent” her little one off to start junior kindergarten online. She shared that “…for me, I feel like I was robbed of the opportunity to see my son go to school physically for the first time.” 


With all the new protocols in place, from mask wearing and hand sanitizing, to social distancing and staggered class start times, in some ways, it felt like entering the school system for the very first time, even for those with older children. Amanda, Community Support Worker and parent to children in grades two and four, echoed this sentiment, “I was a bit emotional as a mom, I was surprised at my reaction. It was as if they were starting junior kindergarten because I was kind of sending them back into the unknown.”


For parents, making the choice between virtual and in-person learning was a complex decision. There were many factors to consider, including the safety and needs of our children and how best to protect immune-compromised loved ones — whether to burst social bubbles or to keep our children at home to help protect them. Julia, Manager of the Executive Office and Administration at Elm Head Office, “…decided to totally pull back out of all bubbles, we’re not seeing anyone outside of our three-person family because [my daughter is] in school and my partner works frontline.” For Tammy, Interim Program Manager of the Elm Supportive Housing Program, it was a hard but necessary decision to enroll her 13-year-old son in online-learning: “My mother lives with us and she has a compromised immune system, so very much to his argument we kept him at home. He’s not happy. He wants to be at school with his friends.”


For some, the decision was clear. Amanda shared that she had two reasons for sending her daughters to in-person school: “…one was their excitement and preference — the virtual learning between March to June was a lot for them. And, also, because both my husband and I are working in essential services.” Maureen, a Registered Early Childhood Educator with the English Language Skills Program and mother to a sixth grader, similarly decided in favour of in-person learning: “My daughter and I decided to do the in-person. [She] was really affected with the closing of school in March…she loves school. She also needs that physical and social interaction with others. Staying at home was not an option for our family.”


While in-person learning may be a necessity for some essential workers, for Juvy having family support allowed her to choose virtual learning for her son: “I actually wanted my son to go to school and allow him to have that social interaction with others, but wanted him to be safe so we kept him home. My husband and I also have family support which allows our son to do the virtual learning because my husband and I both still work.” 


It’s a fact: our daily lives have drastically changed from our old “normal” routines. We are all trying to raise our children as best we can while navigating a global pandemic. We hope that someday soon we are able to hug our family and friends, and not worry so much about things like hand sanitizing, mask wearing, and social distancing. But until that time, we continue to face stress, anxiety and uncertainty head on. We will do our best to be supportive, resilient and brave, knowing that we are not alone. As shared by one member of the panel, “[i]t’s nice knowing I’m not the only one feeling this way.” 


This is a uniquely difficult time in history, and we are making the best decisions we can for our families. We will get through this together. 


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Lucy Sterezylo is a Toronto-based visual designer and the Production and Design Co-ordinator with the Advocacy and Communications team. In addition to her work at YWCA Toronto, she runs a small letterpress studio, plays recreational hockey (when not in a global pandemic) and enjoys spending time with her partner and kids (even during a global pandemic).  


(Image by Kelly Sikkema)