Seriously: Won’t somebody please think of the children?

OPINION: We’ve heard a lot about how schools should be the last thing to close and the first thing to open. We’re still not doing enough to protect them — or our kids
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 02, 2021
Students in the Toronto District School Board are set to go back to class on September 9. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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A year and a half into this pandemic, I find myself thinking, often, about the toll taken on children. They have sacrificed enormously to help keep others safe, and in the main, weren’t asked or consulted. It’s not that we were wrong to expect this of them — life isn’t fair, and this is a classic example of the only right thing to do coming at a terrible cost. But the cost should at least be recognized. A year and a half of lying low and binge-watching even more Star Trek than usual has been for me, at worst, a bummer. At times, I’ve kind of enjoyed some parts of the new normal, to be frank. Do you have any idea how much money I’m saving on downtown parking? 

My kids, though, have lost experiences and opportunities they won’t get back. And this bothers me more than I like to let on.

A journalist is never fully off duty, and I’ve been interested, on a professional level, to watch how my kids have coped. My daughter is two years older than my son. She had experienced much more normal life before COVID-19 hit — activities, sleepovers with friends, the full gamut of age-appropriate sports and activities. And her personality is also more, uhhh, expressive and outgoing, so she really did max out the available experiences in her pre-COVID-19 life. She retains those memories. She understands, at least somewhat, what her parents mean when they talk about “normal,” and how her life since March 2020 has diverged from that.

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My son, though, really doesn’t. He’s never had a normal year in public school. He’s been denied the opportunity to make friends and go on field trips and just do normal kid stuff. Unlike my daughter, who greets everyone like a politician 10 points back in the polls, my son is quiet — not shy, per se, but quite content to keep his own counsel and happy to entertain himself at home. There have been moments during this pandemic when I’ve worried he’s almost adapted too well to it; while my daughter was heartbroken each time they closed the schools, my son just shrugged and explained he’d be happier at home with his toys. 

He has great toys! But there’s more to life than what’s in our four walls, and he’s been denied chances to learn that. A big part of parenting is helping your kids experience what they take joy from, but an equally big part is forcing them out of their comfort zone so that they can try new things: meet new people, sample new foods, see new sights, and experience new activities. And that’s been damn hard since this all began. It hasn’t been impossible, and we’ve had our victories here and there — my son now loves golf. Like, really loves it. So that’s great. But those kids young enough to not clearly remember life before COVID-19 really don’t know what they’re missing. Maybe that’s a blessing for them. But it’s a heavy burden for the parents to carry.

As the fall approaches and cases soar up again, I find myself fairly philosophical about what my future may bring. I’m fully vaccinated and healthy and young; ditto my wife. We can both work from home if we have to — it’s not ideal, always, but it works. We’ve already found new routines and ways of living that we can simply sustain, indefinitely, as long as possible. I’d like this to be over, for all kinds of small, personal, selfish reasons. “I miss my luxuries” seems a terrible thing to say during a tragedy that has killed almost 30,000 Canadians ... but it’s true all the same. Yet if it all happens again, well, fine. I’ll adapt.

But my kids, and all the kids, have only a few short fleeting years of being kids, and we’re burning through those fast. At the start of the pandemic, we spoke a lot about how schools should be the last thing to close and the first thing to open, and then we didn’t do anything even remotely close to that. We have never done as much as could reasonably be done to protect the schools, and, now, young children are the largest remaining unvaccinated segment in the population. They will be for months, at best. We need those schools to stay safely open, and for now, all we can do is make classrooms as safe as possible, deploy testing as aggressively as possible, and do everything possible to get the adult vaccination rate as high as it can go. We are, at this point, not doing any of these things. 

And then there are their activities. My daughter has always been a “dabbler” — she likes trying everything, so there hasn’t been any particular activity she’s missed. But my son, true hoser Canuck that he is, loves hockey as much as he loves golf: he lost half of his first-ever season to COVID-19, and the second was cancelled entirely. It’s still far from clear that he’ll get a chance to play the third. The Greater Toronto Hockey League certainly seems to be preparing to open; it rolled out its vaccination policy just last month. But, well, what can we say? We’ve all seen promised reopenings torpedoed by a swift turn for the worse in our pandemic metrics, and while I remain confident that any future waves will be largely blunted by our vaccines, I’m not totally convinced that we’ve seen our last lockdown. I simply don’t have faith that we have steady hands on the wheel at Queen’s Park. After the bungling of the third wave, how can anyone?

I hope we are done with lockdowns, obviously. Who doesn’t? But I’m willing to cut the fates a deal — should we, yet again, have to largely shut the province down to save our hospitals and the lives of thousands, let’s do it differently this time. Let’s actually mean it when we say we’ll close schools last and open them first. Let’s keep the kids in their activities, as much as humanly possible, even if those activities look different. Let’s remember that a year to me and a year to my kids aren’t the same thing. Let’s get it right, for once. Let my daughter make friends at school, and let my son play hockey. Give me that, and I’ll call it a win. 

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