Indefinitely

One mother’s take a year into the madness of school closures in Ontario

I am a mother of four school aged children, currently on leave from my job. It has taken me over three months to write this article. Not because I wasn’t inspired or motivated or that I lacked desire to write. Rather, I was overfaced by the near logistical impossibility of finding more than a few moments where my children didn’t require me, where my cognitive, emotional and physical capacity wasn’t obliterated by day end and where I could get access to one of the now plentiful but paradoxically scarce electronic devices in my home.

Each day, I feverishly scribbled my thoughts on this situation on the backs of online learning printouts that now layer over what was once my dining table, while thinking “surely this madness will end soon,” and hoping my thoughts could become buried and forgotten along with the incomplete worksheets destined for the recycling bin.

This past week though, after listening to Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce on Monday May 3rd refuse to offer any plan or even an idea of what may happen for the remainder of this school year during his update on education, I took some time to write this out as a therapeutic activity for myself, and to acknowledge all the other parents struggling and suffering, trying to manage everything right now. It came at quite a cost — many tears from yelling through the house at my unsupervised children, missed Google Meets and abandoned online learning assignments I was not there to keep on top of, a house now in complete disarray, unfed children, and everyone’s mental wellness now in a questionable state.

For over a year, parents of school aged children in Ontario have been running a gruelling marathon rolling from one school closure and lockdown to the next trying to manage an impossible mix of parenting, caregiving, teaching, tech support and logistics management, while trying to maintain jobs, careers and other life responsibilities, as well as being people affected by this pandemic in our own right.

School closures, public health social distancing measures and lockdown requirements left us parents with school aged children with no help or village to support us. We were beyond exhausted. There was little sleep, no rest and the idea of time to ourselves or self care was laughable. But every day we got up and did our best to get through it, trying to find ways to pace ourselves to the finish line, knowing we had to do our part to contribute to the global co-operative effort to survive through this pandemic. It felt impossible, but we did it, because as parents, there is no other available option than to care for our children, doing whatever we can to keep them safe, healthy and protected from undue suffering.

On April 12, 2021, more than a year into this global pandemic, Premier Doug Ford closed schools in Ontario, again, for the third time.

Collective loss of our minds

While the announcement came with the same abrupt, overnight notice as the prior closures, this time was different. This time the words “closed indefinitely” lit up headlines in news outlets as Ford and Lecce refused to provide any indication of when or if schools will reopen this year.

Our grueling marathon just became a marathon without a finish line.

As the third closure was announced, our online networks pinged with messages from each other as our burn out and exhaustion turned to disbelief, panic, and a full-fledged collective meltdown among Ontario parents as we were told to continue to do the impossible — indefinitely.

A mother is leaning against the wall looking exhausted and hopeless. She is holding a coffee mug and is covered is children’s paint. Toys show on the stairs behind her.
A mother is leaning against the wall looking exhausted and hopeless. She is holding a coffee mug and is covered is children’s paint. Toys show on the stairs behind her.

Why is this impossible? Why the collective meltdown?

We understand the difficulty situations people have been put in through this pandemic. We understand there are no easy answers, and difficult choices need to be made in the public interest.

But here we are, more than a year later. We are beyond exhausted. Being a working parent was already difficult with trying to constantly balance a challenging equation of children, home, work, and the rest of life.

The in-class learning provided by schools was a crucial social pillar that enabled us to balance the equation.

We all know that school is intended to be the primary source of formal education and learning for our children through well designed curriculum, focusing on the development of core numeracy and literacy skills.

This is not the full scope of the role school plays for us as a society though. There are other critical functions of school that enable our social structure and economy to operate and children to develop into healthy, well functioning people.

Reliable childcare — whether you believe it should or shouldn’t be, the fact is, school is childcare for younger children. It provides a reliable way for parents to be able to do other things in life such as working to bring in income, attending school themselves or fulfilling other caregiver responsibilities. In Canada, it is generally established by various laws and most Child Services organizations (Radic, 2015) that based on brain development, maturity and social development, children under the age of 12 should not be left home alone and younger children should be always supervised while in the home.

With these guidelines, how can it be the expectation now that these children are alone all day within the home, unsupervised except through a computer which they can disconnect from any at time they wish, while parents desperately try to work or attend to other critical responsibilities? Add to this the dangers of such extended amounts of largely unsupervised time online, flying in the face of every pre-pandemic parenting direction related to children’s use of the internet.

The youngest of our society are still safely being cared for in childcare centers that remain open but what is happening for this forgotten cohort of children who school previously cared for and who are too old for daycare but far too young to be left unsupervised?

Caregiving and support — school is a community where our children receive love, food, safety, health care and support to help meet their critical and core human needs and sometimes fill gaps for what is not received at home. This recent Toronto Star news article (Yousif, 2020) reports that Calls to Kids Help Phone, a charitable organization that provides free confidential professional counselling and support to youth across Canada, more than doubled from almost 2 million calls in 2019 to 4 million under this pandemic with almost half the increased calls coming from Ontario children reaching out for emotional and mental support.

As a mother of four young children, I acutely feel this loss of the caregiving and supports that school previously provided to our family. I am missing our school village from the teachers who would help me to understand where my children are emotionally and mentally, to office coordinators who would keep spare snacks for forgotten lunch box days and who would help me tease apart a real tummy ache from just a bad day, to principles and administrators who diligently adhered to protocols and carried the burden with me of ensuring my children with complex medical needs were safe and cared for and the social, therapeutic and mental health supports provided through our school which my children are no longer receiving.

Stimulation, Socialization, and Informal learning — children used to return home from school tired having expended their energy through healthy stimulation of new environments, experiences, social interaction, and copious amounts of informal learning. At school they would interact with different people, spaces, and situations in class, at recess, in halls and libraries, on the bus and in lunchrooms. Now by midday, after mornings of physically restrictive and disengaging online learning, our children are climbing the walls of the living rooms they are trapped in.

We notice this missing function of school every day with the loss of the beautiful period of quiet parents used to get when the children arrived home from predominately technology free school days, healthily simulated from real world experiences and ready to spend time on a screen unwinding while we prepared dinner and recovered from our own busy day. We see our children in desperate need of real-world stimuli every day, but the logistical impossibility of this situation prevents us from being able to address it. How can we take them to the playground when we need to be in our own back-to-back work conference calls all afternoon? What option do we have other than to “plug” them into yet another screen to get through the day?

Shared Responsibility for Authority — school shares responsibility of being the authority for children. Teachers, principles, bus drivers, educational assistants, and so many qualified and capable adults share in the heavy responsibility that is to be an authority for children. Without these other authority figures, it is just us parents carrying this responsibility. Day in and day out, on top of all the regular parenting we must do, we are now constantly harping on them to attend their virtual classes, complete and submit assignments, stop standing on their head and pay attention to their virtual teacher, colour worksheets, watch the videos, keep their pants on when on camera, stop interrupting their siblings’ classes and the list goes on. In addition to the increased volume of daily activity that we must be an authority on, we are further challenged with the decrease in the effectiveness of our authority, having lost the reinforcement of rules, social norms, and expectations that children would have previously received from other adults and peers at school.

Enter a Pandemic and Pivot to Online Learning

Through this pandemic and the necessary school closures, the only function of school that has been acknowledged or attempted to be addressed is the formal learning component of school through the abrupt pivots to “Online Learning”.

As a Workplace Learning and Development Manager by profession, I believe in the value and benefits of Online Learning. We’ve been using online learning in the workplace to educate adults for decades now. Virtual classrooms can be an effective synchronous solution in many cases, such as for geographically dispersed learners. Given the pandemic social distancing requirements, online learning is one of the only available options to try to continue formal education for our children at any kind of scale. Are there significant improvements needed to provide a better and more effective learning experience for our children? Of course.

The reality is that the quality of the online learning experience being delivered by the Ontario school system is poor.

Creating effective online learning solutions requires significant upfront instructional design work completed by individuals educated in pedagogy and skilled in the principles and practices of the online learning modality. It must then be paired with the right virtual platform and delivered by instructors skilled in the art of virtual delivery.

The online learning approach rapidly and haphazardly thrown together by administrators and teachers over the last year simply cannot compete with the in class learning approaches that have been adapted and honed over decades of experience and that, up until the pandemic, effectively and engagingly educated our children.

Creating virtual learning is a big part of that job I used to do before taking a leave. It is challenging work that requires special training and skill sets. I appreciate the efforts teachers and school administrators have made to try to piece together formal online learning for our children given the time, skill, and knowledge available at the time. We all know there is ways to go before we can begin to consider it a truly effective replacement for in class formal learning. I am not here to argue against or about it.

Rather, this is to call out that generally, by 11am my children are done — literally and figuratively. Assigned formal learning work is as complete as its going to be, cognitive capacity for formal learning fully expended and tolerance for virtual existence maxed out.

Now what?

If they had been at school, what is happening in the rest of the time — in the other hours between 11am and 3:30pm dismissal and before a half hour bus ride home? What would have been happening in that huge block of time that parents are now filling?

The significant amount of time outside of the formal learning is filled with the careful supervision of the children, the socialization, physical activity, informal learning, caregiving and shared authority of these children.

Who then, is now picking up these hours and this work that school, through the teachers, principles, bus drivers, lunch time supervisors, educational assistants and volunteers, was previously doing?

The Economic Argument

Parents. The parents are picking up this work and these hours. This is the gruelling marathon we are running every day. In addition to having to manage and directly support the two or so hours of “online learning” for our children, we are also picking up the rest of the hours of work that school would otherwise be providing.

I am a working mother. If my children are in my living room all day, I am not working. This is not school. I built my life on the assumption my children would be cared for and educated at school, rather than in my home, primarily under my guidance, instruction, and supervision, with materials transmitted to me via the internet and labelled “online Learning” and then left on my own to do the rest of the work school would have previously done.

I am now on a leave of absence from work. Not because of stress or parental guilt, but because it is simply a logistical impossibility to work a full to work a full day of child management responsibilities that school would have previously provided on top of a full-time job and other regular life duties.

Why is no one talking about this?

Why are we leaping over and closing our eyes to the fact that for a year, parents and children have been suffering from the loss of these other critical functions that school plays in our lives?

We get there are no easy answers during a global pandemic. This situation is unprecedented, except, that it isn’t now. We have an entire year of precedent to go on and it tells us, this does not work. From a sheer logistics and economic approach, this isn’t a feasible solution.

It is alarming that we have now normalized and accepted a solution that only partially, and rather poorly, addresses one small part of the problem. Online Learning cannot simply be exchanged for in person learning. While it continues to be reached for and put forward as a solution during this pandemic, the more concerning issue is the integration of it as a viable, complete alternative to in-person learning going forward.

Already school boards are implementing policies to “pivot” to online learning during inclement weather days or other situations that could cause a closure of school buildings. Upper Grand District School Board has published their new policy on their website (UGDSB, 2020) for emergency closure days stating “when schools are closed to both students and staff (e.g. power outages, weather closures formerly known as “System Shutdown”), students will pivot to remote learning for the day.”

What will come next? Pivoting to online learning when a teacher is sick? During annual flu season? If there are space constraints or even used as a cost cutting measure? If its now accepted as a viable and effective alternative to in person school during a pandemic, why wouldn’t it be acceptable in these other situations?

It is an incomplete solution. We pay our schools to educate our children, but the in-class work of teachers and other school staff provides a lot more value to the economy than just the value of the formal education itself and much of the value is lost when students are not in class.

The economic equation is being balanced at the expense of parents, resulting in the deterioration in parents’ mental health, their ability to work effectively at their jobs, or even work at all, leading to declines in family income now or in the future through career impacts. Its also being balanced at the expense of the mental health, learning and general development and wellbeing of our children. The Canadian Pediatric Society recognizes this with their open letter (CPS, 2021) issued on May 7 urging the Ontario government to mobilize a plan to get children back in school to protect their mental health and wellbeing.

We know this is challenging for everyone. We are asking for awareness and acknowledgment for how the shut-down of the in-person school system is affecting parents and children and the extra work we must pick up to keep life going.

We are asking you to not close your eyes to this — do not allow “online learning” to be normalized as a convenient and viable replacement for school without somehow addressing all these other elements of what school provides to parents and children, our economy and society.

Because if we want to normalize online learning as a solution for education and a replacement for in class school, we need to expedite the implementation of much needed social changes like establishing a minimum basic income for parents who have no choice but to stay home with children, policy changes regarding housing to enable a shift to multigenerational living where other caregivers are available and integrated into children’s lives and regulations to ensure there is fair and equitable access for all families to internet service and technology and the associated support and education needed to operate and manage that technology.

Without addressing these broader needed social changes, we are indirectly pushing families to have to return to one parent working households. We’ve seen this already happening and we know it is disproportionately affecting women, as discussed in this McKinsey article (McKinsey, 2021), setting us back decades in social progress. As parents we will continue carrying this weight during the pandemic, simply because we have no other option. We will do whatever we must to care for our kids, juggling impossible things, making hard choices such as to leave the workforce temporarily or permanently or radically restructuring our lives to accommodate this new reality. But when we ignore the other functions and “work” of school in our social structure and pretend like this is fine, we are telling parents and let’s be real here, mothers and women carrying the brunt of this, that they don’t matter and that their lives and work and identities don’t matter.

As a woman now finding myself home with my children, because without school there is simply no other option than to leave my job to care for them, I am beyond disappointed in us as a society. How is it that in the year 2021 we have been unable to find a better solution to this challenge than to simply fall back upon mothers to do even more and give up even more of themselves to keep life going?

Broader Reaching Impacts

For those without children or otherwise unaffected by this wondering why you should care about this situation beyond the moral or economic reasoning, perhaps consider how easily the removal of an entire social pillar we built our lives around can be done. I am still struggling to comprehend how school could be removed with almost no notice, for practically a year, with no attempt at replacing the all functions it played for us in our lives and without any acknowledgement of the impact of this.

If school can be taken away overnight and a huge portion of the role it played in society left unaddressed, then anything is up for grabs in the social domain. What have you built your life on the assumption it would always be there — pension plans, health care, old age care, social welfare, justice and security? We are in the midst of a health crisis where protecting our health care system is placed above all else, but a different crisis can and will bring different priorities and you may find yourself without one of the social elements you depend on in your own life. What will you do then?

While we are all thankful to the healthcare, front line, and essential workers, can we take a moment to acknowledge the massive contributions parents and children have made to the collective effort? Can we recognize the sacrifices we have made mentally, emotionally, and financially to enable social distancing through the closure of our schools?

We are burnt out beyond burnt. Our children are not thriving. They are suffering from loss of learning, development, socialization and extreme stress and chaos at home, as their parents try to do the impossible of working multiple jobs every day.

Its time to talk about the fact that online learning is missing the functions of childcare, caregiving, support, stimulation, socialization, informal learning and shared responsibility for authority that school plays in our society and economy and parents are left to either pickup this work without compensation or accept the cost of this work not getting done and the detrimental effects it has on their children.

I implore you, as our Provincial Government announces the continuation of Online Learning as an “option” for parents for the 2021–2022 school year, to support us in ensuring it is only ever made available as an option for those whom it works for and not seen as a viable and complete replacement for in class school for our children during this pandemic or any time in the future that a government or school official deems it “necessary” to pivot.

Please give us some hope that there is a finish line to this brutal marathon and that we are not expected to continue it — indefinitely.

Sincerely,

Bronwen Jones, on behalf of every drowning and suffering parent

References

CPS, C. P. (2021, May 7). @CanPaedSociety. Retrieved from Twitter: https://twitter.com/CanPaedSociety/status/1390733108262187012/photo/1

McKinsey. (2021, March 8). Seven charts that show COVID-19’s impact on women’s employment. Retrieved from McKinsey & Company: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/seven-charts-that-show-covid-19s-impact-on-womens-employment#

Radic, M. R.-C. (2015, March). Canadian Welfare Reserach Portal. Retrieved from https://cwrp.ca/: https://cwrp.ca/sites/default/files/publications/144e.pdf

UGDSB. (2020, November). Upper Grand District School Board Website. Retrieved from Inclement Weather Procedures: https://www.ugdsb.ca/schools/inclement-weather-procedures/

Yousif, N. (2020, December 13). 4 million cries for help: Calls to Kids Help Phone soar amid pandemic. Retrieved from The Toronto Star: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/12/13/4-million-cries-for-help-calls-to-kids-help-phone-soar-amid-pandemic.html

Mother, woman, learning professional. Challenger of the status quo and advocate for a better way. Join me if you’re ready for the adventure.