Once again, parents and kids have been left to fend for themselves

OPINION: Parents are climbing the walls while trying to keep their young children stimulated and COVID-free — and the government still isn’t using every tool in its toolbox
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Jan 10, 2022
In 2020, SickKids came out with a list of recommendations on how to reopen schools safely. (Charli Bandit/iStock)

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When I heard that the provincial government was floating the idea of high-school students returning to in-person learning on January 17 while elementary students remain online, I realized that once again another goalpost that didn’t exist before would now prevent younger kids, mine included, from going back to class. 

As of last Thursday, only 45 per cent of the five-to-11 cohort had received a vaccine, a number that Peter Jüni, scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, calls “alarming.”

Never mind that kids 12 and older have been eligible for vaccination since May, while children under 11 were approved only in late November. By no means am I advocating for kids to go back into an unsafe environment. My frustration is that, yet again, we know what needs to be done to make schools safer, yet vaccination remains the tool that we’ve come to rely on. And the onus will now be shifted to parents who haven’t had their children vaccinated, even though it was the province that decided not to have vaccine mandates for children under 11. 

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My decision to get my children, who are under 11, vaccinated was one of the hardest I’ve ever made, and I can’t imagine that parents who haven’t had their children vaccinated will be easily swayed to do it now.

How do you convince the parents in that group to have their children vaccinated when the province is making it harder for us to keep our kids safe? Why limit testing, which would give parents peace of mind and allow households to function? It’s unrealistic for children to isolate every time they get sick; young kids seem to get sick every other week. And why stop reporting COVID-19 numbers in schools? Ignoring the virus won’t stop it from spreading. 

Parents have been repeatedly abandoned during this pandemic and left to fend for themselves. Playgrounds were shut down, and extracurricular activities have been suspended — while malls stay open. Learning loss has been ignored, and the education gaps have been left for parents to deal with out of pocket on their own time. This government’s attitude toward children suggests that they should be seen and not heard.

All this comes as more children and infants are being hospitalized with COVID-19.

“We’ve only got a handful of children in intensive-care units across Ontario at present,” Kieran Moore, the chief medical officer of health, said last Thursday at a virtual press conference. “We’re monitoring their capacity … Only 70 per cent of the beds in the intensive-care units today for children are being used, and we’re not seeing a significant rise in admissions.”

This was on the day the news broke that a child under four and a child under 10 had died after having tested positive.

Moore found out about the second death from CTV’s Colin D’Mello.

“I’m taken aback,” Moore said. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t aware.” 

Earlier in the day, while listening to the CBC’s Metro Morning, I was surprised to learn that, yes, the data was showing that Omicron was affecting children in more serious ways than previous variants did. “Omicron is a different beast compared to other COVID-19 variants,” said family doctor and anesthetist Nadia Alam. “The other COVID-19 variants primarily targeted the lungs … With Omicron, what we’re seeing is more upper-airwave symptoms — so, stuffy nose, sore throats, and coughs … In little kids, those upper airwaves are pretty small, so it’s very easy to get congested. That’s why illnesses like croup hit them harder. That’s why illnesses like RSV, which is a very common respiratory airwave virus, hit them harder. So they are more vulnerable.”

Alam’s message was in stark contrast to Moore’s; his approach seemed to be one-size-fits-all.

He spoke of how frustrating and challenging it was for school to move back online and explained why the province had to reimpose public-health measures, but he never addressed why kids under five — who are not yet eligible for vaccination — aren’t in the high-risk category, which would grant them access to PCR testing. 

“These decisions were not taken lightly, and I am truly sorry we are asking you once again to make these tremendous sacrifices,” he said. “These sacrifices are necessary. They’re necessary to blunt the impact that this exponential rise in cases of Omicron will have on our health-care system.”

In exchange for the sacrifices that Ontarians have already made for the past two years, the government has decided that only some Ontarians will be able to access testing. 

At the press conference, Moore said that testing was a luxury. He later walked the statement back, but he had already said the quiet part out loud. Testing is a luxury. Imagine the agony of someone with a child under five who’s showing symptoms. If you’ve been around children or worked at a daycare, you will know that this age group is constantly sick. And if your child is in this age group, you’ve more than likely been climbing the walls, trying to work at home (if you’re able) without your extended community, all while trying to keep your child safe, stimulated, and COVID-free. And, now, you might have no way of knowing whether your child has a cold, the flu, or COVID-19.

Moore cited the global demand for tests. Yet private clinics are popping up throughout the province; some are offering same-day results for $160. 

The government tends to tout its accomplishments by comparing its response to that of other provinces.  What goes largely unmentioned is that students in Ontario have been online learning longer than those anywhere else in Canada. We also know that, while the government says it follows expert advice, that advice is not followed in full. In 2020, SickKids came out with a list of recommendations on how to reopen schools safely after the switch to online in March. Key recommendations were smaller class sizes and improved ventilation. 

When schools reopened in September 2021, large class sizes were still the norm and not the exception. One teacher in the Toronto District School Board was alarmed to discover they would have 38 students in their classroom. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve heard that COVID-19 doesn’t affect children the way it does older people. Imagine being an educator shut up with almost 40 students in a classroom where the main source of ventilation is an open window? How many of our workplaces have that many people in one place? How safe would any one of us feel?

“Our government has enhanced ventilation in every school, deployed high-quality PPE, and are accelerating access to the COVID-19 vaccine booster for all education and child-care staff,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce stated in a press release this past weekend. “As we work to get children back to class, we are taking swift action to establish additional clinics — open seven days a week — that will provide further protection for Ontario’s school communities.”

The press release also mentioned that ventilation improvements — “including more than 70,000 HEPA filter units and other ventilation devices already deployed to schools” — have been made across Ontario. Why didn’t the province make more improvements in summer 2020, when the SickKids report came out? With some 5,000 elementary and secondary schools in the province, what kind of impact would 70,000 filters have?

Whenever I hear a government proxy list off measures it has introduced — these days, it’s generally Moore — I often wonder where these improvements were made and why they weren’t made sooner.

How did we get to a place where we can justify sending 30 children who aren’t vaccinated into a poorly ventilated classroom with maybe a new HEPA filter and a mask (which the child’s family has provided) and a teacher who may or may not be vaccinated — and then call it action? How can we stick to the message that schools are safe because children rarely get severely ill from COVID-19 when those children are taught not by other children but by teachers who may fall into an age group that does get sicker from the virus? And how can we say it’s children with comorbidities who are more likely to die without considering that those children’s lives matters too, and that we should do everything to protect them?  

In March 2020, moving in-class learning online made sense. Doing it again in January 2022 — when the government hasn’t used every tool in its toolbox — smacks of indifference. There is no greater harm than that.

In the interest of full disclosure: since it was created in 1970, TVO has been part of the province’s delivery of distance learning. Today, TVO offers online secondary-school courses through the Independent Learning Centre; it has been asked by the province to help implement a provincial online-learning system in Ontario.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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