Sara Chojnicki, a parent volunteer with a child attending the Virgil “learning pod,” said she chose the alternative school because it relieves children from pandemic restrictions that could cause “lifelong trauma.”
Chojnicki said she tried to get her six-year-old daughter exempt from wearing a mask in school.
“I don’t really agree with the risks outweighing the benefits of what a mask would do for a child,” she said in an interview at the school.
Niagara’s top doctor said he has seen no scientific evidence that masks are more harmful than beneficial for children.
“Most children are able to tolerate masks. Obviously it’s not the most fun thing to do but children have been able to continue wearing them and successfully been in school for the last 18 months,” Dr. Mustafa Hirji said in an interview.
He noted exemptions should be granted where warranted.
“It’s a core part of their development to be able to see people’s faces, to socialize,” Chojnicki said.
She said the Niagara Catholic District School Board said her daughter would be isolated from the rest of the kids if she was approved for a mask exemption.
“Just the thought that they would segregate a six-year-old child, the trauma that would cause her … absolutely disgusting,” she said.
“These are the hands that my children are sitting in right now. These people are the ones saying, ‘This is OK behaviour, that we’re going to do this to your child.’ And that was it for me. She was never going to be in that school board again.”
In an email, Catholic school board spokesperson Jennifer Pellegrini said, “Determining the appropriate accommodation for a student who cannot wear a face mask due to a disability requires an assessment of the student’s needs, balanced with the need for school safety requirements.”
“Staff make every effort to work with students throughout this process and the decision to recommend remote learning for those students who are unable to wear a mask is considered a last option.”
Chojnicki said education professionals are not putting children first.
“The social distancing thing was a really, really big issue for me as well. I feel that the educators are putting their fears ahead of the children’s needs.”
But the 40-year-old said she is not a COVID denier. She said her whole family had COVID-19 and the experience helped her decide the virus isn’t entirely the health threat it is made out to be.
She said she weighed “the benefits with the risks and I just don’t feel like it’s a safe place anymore in the schools (because of pandemic restrictions).”
Chojnicki is a dental hygienist in Welland but volunteers at the Niagara Alternative Learning Alliance pod almost every day.
“I really want to be here, my kids want to be here. It’s not work, it’s a labour of love,” she said.
Another mother and volunteer, Sandy Craig, said her son’s loss of education due to school closings motivated her to find a reliable alternative.
“It turns out that (my son’s) entire Grade 5 class is two years behind (on their education),” Craig said in an interview at the Virgil school.
The “online learning thing they’ve been doing for the last two years has been a complete waste of time. He wasn’t adjusting well,” she said.
Craig said she is very happy with the learning pod and volunteers because “I want to be a part of it and I might not be a teacher but I can teach things.”