The back-to-school jitters are hitting harder this year with many parents uncertain about the Ministry of Education’s plan to reopen schools in less than a month.
One Niagara-on-the-Lake parent of three Crossroads Public School students said she is in “disbelief” the government is willing to play a “very risky game of what-if with our kids” for the sake of financial economical regrowth.
Stephanie Baxter said she does want her three kids back in school, for their mental health, social connection and for proper education.
“Because I am not a qualified teacher and I cannot give them what they need from school. But I honestly can’t see how this year is going to play out, or how this is going to be a good thing,” Baxter said.
On July 30, the Ontario government announced its plan to reopen schools this September.
The plan suggests elementary schools, from kindergarten to Grade 8, will reopen five days a week. Students will remain in the same cohort, which means they will stay with the same teacher and group of students for the entire school day, with limited exposure to multiple teachers.
Secondary schools will open on an adapted model, the plan states. Students will see different timetables designed to keep them in the same small cohort of students. Under the government’s outline, secondary students of designated school boards would also see 50 per cent of their learning done remotely.
“Secondary school students in an adapted model would be assigned curriculum-linked work on remote learning days and, where possible, would participate in synchronous learning with their teacher and classmates for a period of each school day,” the COVID-19: reopening schools page states.
On Aug. 10, the District School Board of Niagara sent out a Return to School Intent Questionnaire to be completed by parents by Aug. 17. The form directs parents to information about expectations for in-class learning versus the voluntary virtual learning options.
But Baxter said she still thinks it's “too soon” to be making the decision about sending her children back to school. She said she is reaching out to the school board for more detailed information on how the school will provide support for children with special needs.
“But what kind of support is there going to be for my special needs child that needs a full-time (education assistant) if we choose online? This is my struggle,” she said.
Until she receives more information, she said she is not yet willing to make the decision to send her kids to school or keep them home.
Megan Vanderlee, a NOTL parent of three school-aged children, said she doesn’t think the Ministry of Education followed Sick Kids' recommendations, adding the plan needs some work.
“Well, I don’t honestly think it's much of a plan. I think they took a little bit of money and sprinkled it around and didn't take into account what Sick Kids suggested,” she said.
The Sick Kids, COVID-19: Guidance for School Reopening document states: “Attention should be paid to improving classroom ventilation (e.g. optimizing ventilation system maintenance and increasing the proportion of outside air brought in through these systems) in consultation with experts in physical plant design and modification.”
Proper ventilation and air flow in classrooms are top concerns for many parents and educators and isn’t thoroughly addressed in the Ontario government’s outline.
NOTL resident Florence Franzo, an early childhood educator with a Greater Toronto Area school board, is offering tutoring services for families who may want to opt out of in-class learning this year.
“I'm nervous myself to go back to school. I feel that the federal and provincial government hasn't put enough options in place to protect our children,” she said.
“Because I teach kindergarten, having all the children in the classroom is ludicrous, and what I've said is the correct word because you cannot social distance the little children, and it's cruel to have them sitting at a desk all day.”
Franzo said lowering class size and updating ventilation inside the schools needs to happen before she would be comfortable going back.
“Essentially the number one thing that they need to do is lower the (number of) children in the classroom … A ventilation system or better ventilation system is needed in all of the classes,” she added.
Vanderlee said she’s still waiting to hear back from her school board about its plan for the year.
“We haven’t gotten anything official from the school board yet.”
Kate McGeachin, a NOTL parent of two young students, said she has “mixed feelings” about the government’s plan.
“I definitely want my girls to go back to school. I found the last six months really challenging because my husband and I both worked from home through it all. And through March, April and May, they were at home with us,” she said.
McGeachin and her husband “struggled” to keep their jobs, to entertain their children through the day and to also manage the homeschooling, she said.
“So, I really do want them to go back to school, but I have really mixed feelings about it because they're my babies. I want to keep them safe and I don't know if the school system is the safest place for them right now,” she said.
After the DSBN's announcement, McGeachin said they will be sending their girls to school in September.
“Like all parents, my husband and I are faced with an extremely tough decision. We are forced to choose between our girls' mental health, our mental health, our physical health, including the health of their extremely involved grandparents, and our jobs.”
“In the end, we have decided to send our girls back to school. I hope it's the right decision,” she said.
Stacey MacIntyre is a NOTL parent of two young students who would be attending Crossroads. As of now, “We are definitely keeping them home” this school year.
“At this point, I don't think anything will change our decision. Even if they make a vaccine there would be a long period of testing. We just don't see the point of taking the risk when we are lucky enough to have a teacher within our bubble of 10,” she said.
She said she understands many people may not be “as lucky as us” to have a teacher available to them. Her mother-in-law is a retired teacher and offered to help with schooling for now, she said.
“Hopefully, if those of us who can do this will do this, the system will not be overburdened and those parents who do not have this option will be able to send their children to smaller class sizes to make it safer for everyone,” MacIntyre said.
Baxter said she isn’t so sure the children won’t be back home within the next few months, anyway.
“I predict we will be right back to where we have been the last five months in the next three to four months with our children being sent to school five days a week,” Baxter said.