My back-to-school cycle of parental anxiety, explained

OPINION: My four-year-old is heading back to school. I am trying to remain calm. I am not always succeeding
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 11, 2020
Premier Doug Ford, left, and Education Minister Stephen Lecce tour Toronto’s Kensington Community School on September 1. (Carlos Osorio/CP)

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Next week, my four-year-old will be heading back to school for the first time: the 2019-20 school year was her first, and this September will be novel for a bunch of reasons. Aside from all the usual adjustments kids need to make (mine hasn’t quite grasped yet that she could very well end up with a different teacher from the one she adored last year), there’s the elephant that refuses to leave the room: how my child, and all the other young kids in Ontario’s schools, will deal with the measures meant to keep them safe in a pandemic — and how they’ll deal with it when there’s a failure somewhere, and kids get sick.

I’d love to be able to say that I’m handling the anxiety with equanimity and confidence, but my mental state for the past several weeks has been closer to electric current rushing across a wire, oscillating rapidly between positive and negative what seems like several times a second.

Positive: Daycares haven’t been outbreak-free in Ontario, but COVID-19 cases have been rare enough that there’s cause to believe that a return to school will be reasonably safe.

Negative: “Reasonably safe” is not a phrase parents love!

Positive: Ontario’s case numbers are still relatively low, despite the recent increases.

Negative: Reopening schools at precisely the moment when cases are climbing in Peel and Toronto (combined population: 4.2 million, give or take) feels like tempting fate.

Positive: Even in Peel and Toronto, the new cases are concentrated in specific areas: many neighbourhoods and schools (including mine) are in low-risk areas.

Negative: It feels absolutely ghoulish to comfort myself with the knowledge that this sickness is mostly bypassing people who live (and earn and look) like I do, and, in any case, centuries of urban history teach us that infectious disease doesn’t stay neatly contained to a single geography forever.

Positive: The recent increase in cases seems actually to have alarmed both provincial and local leaders and shaken them out of their August complacency.

Negative: So far, their only public response has been to argue over whose responsibility it is to do anything: Queen’s Park, the mayors, the councils, or the public-health officers.

Positive: My daughter understands, in her way, how serious the pandemic is and has been really good about observing rules around masks and regular hand-washing and all the other myriad things we’ve been required to adjust to.

Negative: We simply don’t know how effective all that’s going to be in the context of classrooms of up to 30 kids. I’m not ready to predict disaster, but this simple fact — we don’t know — isn’t helping me sleep at night.

Positive: My child’s mental health really did visibly deteriorate over the long absence from school, and that’s a large reason why we made the decision that she had to go back to in-person class, despite everything else in this horrid year.

Negative: How’s her mental health going to deal with a new round of isolation if there’s a case in her cohort — or possibly multiple periods of isolation over the school year?

Positive: We didn’t just invent infectious diseases in 2020. School boards and teachers have some experience dealing with public-health issues, from vaccines to head lice; COVID-19 is new and legitimately scary, but it’s not utterly alien.

Negative: I don’t question educators’ devotion or professionalism; I question whether they’ll have the resources they need to do the job they’ve been given this year.

Positive: My daughter and my wife have already demonstrated their resilience this year, and however bad the fall gets, I don’t think it will be as bad as the spring was. My family got through that; we’ll get through this.

Negative: As a father and husband, talking about their “resilience” feels as if I’m rationalizing my total inability to protect the people I care about most in this world.

And on and on. All my spare mental capacity for weeks has gone to running through some version of this doom loop, and it shows no sign of abating. Thanks to my work, I’ve got a better-than-average understanding of how the various levels of government have responded to the pandemic, and I can lay out all the reasonable, calm explanations of why Ontario’s return to school may be fine, and, indeed, why other jurisdictions have been able to reopen schools without serious harm.

But I haven’t been able to silence the voice in my head screaming, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING???” and I suspect that a lot of parents are feeling the same this week. I don’t know what to say to the rest of you, except that I’m hoping I’ll be able to exhale some time in October.

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