One of the most humbling things about being a parent is that children constantly ask questions you don’t know the answer to: What makes grass green? Why do I laugh when you tickle my feet? Can lightning hit our house? I’ve been home with my six-year-old twins since mid-March, so you can bet there’s been a lot more Googling than usual. With September a month away, and summer boredom settling in, there’s another question my daughters have been asking lately: When are we going back to school?
It’s a question that’s on the minds of parents across Canada, with so many unknowns, and a lot of anxiety around how we’ll be keeping kids, teachers and school staff safe. Meanwhile, many parents continue to juggle work and childcare through the summer, with the majority of camps closed and many travel plans cancelled. Before announcements this week from the Ontario and British Columbia provincial governments about plans for returning to the classroom, I asked six women to share what their summers have been like so far, and how they are preparing for the school year ahead.
Suzanne Barr, chef and restaurateur
“My son Myles is five. He just finished his first year of kindergarten, and this was going to be his first summer going to day camp, which was really exciting. I wanted him to experience making friends outside of school. I think he was starting to feel a bit of independence, and he’s been showing a love of music, so we were thinking of putting him into music classes. We had some really big plans for our family in 2020.
When the schools closed it was challenging at first, and then we found our groove. As restaurant owners, my husband and I are typically there six days a week, working 14-hour days. If someone calls in sick, one of us has to be there. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, suddenly Myles had his mom and dad at home with him. We were having dinner together every night. My husband and I have been so grateful for that time. With the Black Lives Matter movement happening, I’ve been having some important conversations with my son, who is biracial. It’s been a lot to process on top of having to officially close our restaurant and figure out what that means for our family’s livelihood, knowing there’s a limit to government funding.
“When it was remote learning, a lot of families in Toronto weren’t able to participate because they don’t have unlimited access to Wi-Fi. I don't think the Toronto District School Board was prepared to understand this disadvantage.”
I recently listened to an episode of The Daily about the safety of children going back to school. My husband and I are starting to talk about what that actually means for our son, and whether we feel comfortable and confident sending him back. The school board has sent out surveys to try to find out what parents are thinking about. There is so much that’s unknown in all of this. But we know that kids thrive when they’re among their peers in their learning spaces. We don’t want to eliminate the opportunity for him to grow and learn and develop. That’s so necessary. But I also have friends who are teachers, and they are nervous as hell to go back to school. When it was remote learning, a lot of families in Toronto weren’t able to participate because they don’t have unlimited access to Wi-Fi. They don’t have cell phones. They don’t have computers in their spaces. I don’t think the Toronto District School Board was in any way prepared to understand this disadvantage. I think as parents we need to come together to keep everyone informed and talk about ways to support other parents during the pandemic.”
Estair Van Wagner, law professor
“I’m a law professor, and my partner has a very busy law practice. We have both been able to work from home and share childcare, but there are days when he starts work at 6 a.m. and I don’t see him until dinner. My schedule has been more flexible since I finished teaching in April. But I should be using this time to plan how I’ll teach my courses online in the fall, and working on my research. We had planned to spend some time on Vancouver Island, where I have an ongoing research project for a few weeks during the summer. Early on we realized we’d need to cancel the trip; Toronto visitors showing up at a place that is particularly at risk wasn’t safe for the Indigenous communities I partner with.
Because we expected to be out west for a month, we only enrolled our sons, who are five and eight, in a few weeks of camps in Toronto. Most of it was outdoor-based programming, so we thought the camps might still run. But every few days we would get a cancellation email in our inbox. Some of the camps did switch to online programming, proposing things like a daily morning meeting where they would provide activity ideas and then we as a family could go and do them together. But given all of the challenges our family had around online learning during the school year – our younger son cried every time we tried to get him to go to his class meetings, and our older son didn’t find it engaging and required constant help from a parent – it just wasn’t a viable replacement. What we actually needed was childcare, and some enriching experiences for our kids.
“It’s baffling to me that the basic right of our children to have a safe education isn't the top policy priority.”
Like many other women I know, I’ve been feeling waves of different emotions, from anger to despair. I don’t know what we’re going to do about the school year ahead. It’s not clear when the final decision-making is going to happen, and by whom. Parents are scrambling to put together plans, without any details but with a lot of contradictory information, that may be a waste of time. And my family has the resources to try and figure something out. What about those who don’t?
It’s baffling to me that the basic right of our children to have a safe education isn’t the top policy priority. We now have the numbers to show that we’ve lost three decades of progress when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce. We also know that the burden is falling most heavily on the women at the lowest end of the income spectrum, who already face a number of pressing challenges. It’s very motivating to make sure my voice is out there to ensure we find a solution that works for everyone, but that solution can’t come from frustrated mothers and parents on Twitter. We need leadership. We need people to be creative in figuring out a way to protect kids and teachers and ensure that people can go back to the jobs that they want to do or need to do financially.”
Jenn Harper, founder of CHEEKBONE BEAUTY
“My husband and I have adapted really well to working from home. But if this had happened when our children were little, it would have been a completely different story. We have two teenagers, so it’s been an easier transition for us. My daughter is starting Grade 10 in September. She’s extremely independent and didn’t require too much assistance when everything moved to remote learning. But my son, who was in Grade 12 when the pandemic started, really struggled with not being in a physical classroom. So this fall he’ll be going back to complete the credits he needs to graduate.
This summer we were supposed to take a family vacation to the South of France. My daughter is a horseback rider, so she would have been spending time at the farm, hanging out with her horse and all the other animals that live there. It’s a place that provides her with a lot of comfort, and I think not having that right now is what she misses the most. Her best friend from Ottawa is visiting this week, and it’s the first time she’s actually been able to hang out with a friend for a longer period of time. Because our families are both very cautious, we’re in a bubble together.
“I don't want my son and daughter going back to school. I'm one of the parents who’s more comfortable with having them at home.”
To be honest, I don’t want my son and daughter going back to school. We live in the Niagara Region, where we’re in stage three. We took a family drive near Niagara Falls recently and it was mind-blowing. Based on [the crowds, and lack of physical distancing and masks] we saw, it feels like there is definitely going to be another outbreak. I’m very cautious about doing our part to stop the spread. There are families we know who are super casual about everything and really want things to go back to normal. Some of our son’s friends’ parents say they’re getting sick of seeing their kids play video games all the time. I’m one of the parents who’s more comfortable with having them at home. They certainly can’t get into as much trouble, and they aren’t faced with as much peer pressure.
But I realize that they need to be with their friends, and that for them, being around their parents isn’t the healthiest situation. Thinking back to my own teenage experience, I didn’t want to be hanging out with my parents either, so I certainly don’t blame them. They’re trying to figure out who they are, and they need independence to be able to do that.”
Eusis Dougan-Mckenzie, marketing and communications consultant
“I’m a single mom. But I’m fortunate that my mother lives with us. When the pandemic hit, it was hardest on my four-year-old, who was in preschool. He became this really sad person, wandering around the house asking, ‘Is COVID over?’ At least my six-year-old got to see his classmates online. When the school year ended, I immediately felt it. Even though it was only two hours of our day, my older son knew what he was going to do for that time, and the younger one would sit with his brother and do some activities. I could squeeze in a work call, or write. As soon as that structure was gone, mayhem took over, and it really felt like a microcosm of Lord of the Flies.
>My oldest was supposed to go to the University of Toronto sports camp for four weeks, and then the Royal Conservatory of Music to perform The Gruffalo musical. My youngest was going to try a few weeks of day camp through the City of Toronto, which was the first thing to be cancelled. Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that this summer was just going to be 60 days of family time.
I live with type one diabetes, and I haven’t had my lab work done. I’ve gained a tremendous amount of weight from poor sleeping and inactivity; I know there are mental health concerns around the stress of all this, but there’s also the physical toll of being on call 20 hours a day for your kids. Because of the way I work, I’m fortunate that I was able to structure my contracts to go down to very little work for these summer months. But it’s also hard financially because I’m squeezing 12 months of work into 10, and I don’t know what the fall is going to bring.
“When I saw the potential proposals from the school board, one of the scariest options for me was one week on, one week off. I have no idea how to work with that.”
When I saw the potential proposals from the school board, one of the scariest options for me was one week on, one week off. I have no idea how to work with that. My youngest son is starting kindergarten. What if my sons aren’t in school on the same days?
If it’s back to full-time remote learning, then I’ve got to figure out how to build an at-home childcare situation, whether that means sharing a caregiver with another family or getting together with a group of families and having a pod. I really am concerned that [the governments and school boards] aren’t engaging all of the stakeholders to figure this out safely. It’s most important to me that the kids and teachers are safe. So if we can’t get this right, we shouldn’t open schools just to hit a checkmark.”
Jane Son, architect and co-founder of CASSON
“Our summer plans included a roster of activities for our eight-year-old son, including swimming and sports camps and a very cool magic camp that he was really looking forward to, all of which were cancelled. Instead, a friend organized a small group of kids for a ‘sports camp’ five mornings a week. It’s just a few hours, but it allows him to be outside and active, and get in a little bit of socializing. We also planned a camping trip and rented a cottage, which we’ve been able to keep, and we’ve tried to be spontaneous, taking a few mini road trips when we can. But we still don’t have any good full-time childcare plans in place for the rest of the summer.
My workload has increased since the pandemic started. We were prepared for sales to dwindle for our online business, but with people spending more time at home, product lines related to things like gardening and office organization became really popular. In the beginning my husband had extra time so things felt easier, but once he became busier, we had a harder time doing all the things that needed to get done with everyone at home. It’s complicated to negotiate a balance when work becomes busier, as your time and resources are taken away. Some days you have to prioritize your work and some days you have to prioritize your family.
“My son once imitated me saying, ‘In five minutes, just another five minutes, wait five minutes,’ and it made me feel really bad about the whole situation.”
It’s definitely a juggling act. And sometimes the balls drop and you just pick up and start again. My son once imitated me saying, ‘In five minutes, just another five minutes, wait five minutes,’ and it made me feel really bad about the whole situation.
Our son would love to go back to school, and we would love that for him, but we’re going to have to see what the guidelines are and how comfortable we feel when the time comes. Like everyone else, we would just like to know what the [government’s] plan is so we can make our plans. All the options feel a little overwhelming. My ideal scenario would be an outdoor school system where kids can be together in a regular setting, keep learning, and have the extra physical activity time outdoors. If [students are asked to attend school on alternative days or weeks] we are considering partnering with other families and requesting that our kids be put on the same schedule so we can hire a tutor and take turns hosting. Again, if we could know in advance, it would be easier to organize, but we’re just waiting to find out what is going to happen next.”
Ilana Weitzman, SVP of Content and Creative Strategy
“Since COVID-19 began we’ve gone from being typical protective parents – running our household with military precision to manage two careers that we love – to free-range parents by necessity. In January, my wife had started a new position at CBC as a producer on the daily radio show q, so when the pandemic hit, we turned our guest bedroom into a makeshift studio. I’m part of the leadership team at my company, so my job became busier. There were pressures on both of us to try to make things work on all fronts.
Very early on, our eldest son, who is 11, made a pod with a bunch of kids who live on our street. He heads out after lunch, then shows up around dinner time. It’s like it’s 1952. If there’s a plus side to all this, it’s the independence we’ve seen him develop. The kids sometimes appear in our backyard to play basketball, or we’ll see them playing elaborate games of hide and seek or nerf gun war around the neighbourhood. Every now and then one of the parents in the group will camp out at the skatepark with a laptop. We managed to get our youngest son, who is seven and highly social, into some camps, and we started the summer with a week at a sleepaway camp that was turned into a day camp where families can go and overnight in a cabin while the kids do activities during the day. It was an amazing reset for our brains, and we’ve booked another week there in August.
“Abandoning parents again is not a viable choice. It’s not a problem that can be solved at an individual level.”
In terms of school in the fall, I think what would horrify many parents, including us, would be a reversion to what we just went through. Abandoning parents again is not a viable choice. Remote learning was really difficult on our kids and on us. I don’t think I’ve ever cried more than I have in recent months. And we honestly tried everything. We tried working weekends. We tried extending our days. We tried taking annual leave. I reduced my hours to four days a week. But we realized there was no solution. It’s not a problem that can be solved at an individual level. Right before the pandemic, the government was already trying to cut education. Maybe after hearing from parents that online learning isn’t effective, especially at the elementary school level, there’ll be a change in the mentality around the importance of teachers and education.”
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