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The start of the upcoming school year is an anxious time for parents, children and teachers.lithiumcloud/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

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The pandemic has confirmed something I have long known about myself.

I am a better mother when I’m not with my children all day.

Here’s the obligatory “don’t get me wrong, I adore my children.” I do adore them, to the point I feel the urge to gobble them up to hold on to their, at 7 and 4, quickly fleeting baby-ness. (To be clear, that is a hyperbolic statement.)

But like many parents, I have found the task of working from home, as an editor at The Globe and Mail, while parenting my young children maddening, stifling and at times simply impossible. And, truthfully, I am a much more patient, fun and nice mother when my children and I spend some hours of the day apart.

The start of the upcoming school year glimmered like a jewel in the far off distance. But it became obvious by mid-August, when a definitive plan had yet to materialize for the reopening of schools in Ontario, that my worst fears were coming true. Our provincial government wasn’t providing adequate funding for critical safety protocols and boards were left scrambling to try to bridge the gap. The already present feeling of risk I had in sending my children to junior kindergarten and Grade 2 became significantly magnified.

And it’s definitely not just me. As Sarmishta Subramanian wrote in this this spot-on Maclean’s piece: “Conversations I’ve had with parents in my neighbourhood and across my city – anecdotal evidence, entirely – swing between anxiety, anger and nervous resolve. ‘I know, I know, it’s awful. There’s going to be COVID in schools. But we’ve decided we’re taking the risk. They need to go,’ one parent told me last week. ‘Feels like we’re tossing her into a giant science experiment,’ another Toronto mother told me by text. ‘With pretty high stakes.’”

I can certainly relate. My husband has a health condition that requires him to take a medication that suppresses his immune system. We are scared of COVID-19. But we are also trying to weigh our need to be cautious with our kids’ need for a normal life after months of mostly being ignored (screens in hand) while we work for eight hours a day.

So how do parents like us make this agonizing choice? Do we sacrifice our kids’ mental health (and ours, I might add) or put our families at risk of potentially catastrophic physical harm?

Some parents are opting to keep their kids home for remote learning. Sincere kudos to them, but I can’t teach my older child or even oversee him doing his school work (in French, a language I do not speak) while simultaneously doing my job. An older kid, maybe, but a squirmy seven-year-old? Good luck with that. The only foreshadowing I’ve got is our experience with remote learning in the spring, which was largely not fun (there were tears, and not just my kid’s), or even meaningfully educational, despite my son’s amazing teacher’s heroic efforts. To call the Toronto District School Board’s attempt at remote learning a disaster across the board would not be overstating things, as described in this Toronto Life piece by Raizel Robin. So forgive me for not having more faith.

Other parents are opting for private school or “pod learning,” as Dakshana Bascaramurty reported in The Globe – where they are grouping with like-minded families and hiring a teacher to work with all their kids. I understand the appeal, but for me, this is a risky proposition. How can you be sure that you and these other families will remain on the same page? What if the handful of kids don’t mesh well? And what happens if the teacher isn’t a good fit? Not to mention the cost, which can be prohibitive. Plus, where exactly would this take place? Because there’s no way it’s my house. And then there’s my ideological position: Public education is a right, and it’s a right worth fighting for. Fleeing isn’t going to make things better, not for my kids when they return or for kids who don’t have the option to leave in the first place.

Instead, my husband and I are taking it one day at a time. As of this writing, we are leaning toward sending our boys to school. Their time at home during the endless weeks of the pandemic has, I believe it’s fair to say, included some suffering. (Suffering, mind you, not trauma.) They are safe and loved and well cared-for – excessive screen time notwithstanding. But they have suffered loneliness, being mentally and physically under-stimulated, and experiencing less joy each day than in their pre-pandemic life. The joy that comes from belly laughs in the schoolyard with their goofy friends. The joy that comes from being in the care of teachers with big hearts, endless creativity and a true love of kids. The joy that comes from starting each day not knowing exactly what it will bring.

There are some reassurances, the biggest of which is that community spread is still relatively low in our Toronto neighbourhood despite a recent overall uptick across the province. As The Globe’s health columnist Andre Picard wrote in mid-August: “It’s about as safe as it’s ever going to be to send kids to school during a pandemic – at least until there is a vaccine.” I’m desperately hoping this remains true.

So I’m buying back-to-school supplies, which this year includes hand sanitizer and masks, and getting my kids ready to walk through their school doors. Yes, I’m scared. Yes, I’m deeply disappointed in our provincial government. And, yes, I’m prepared to change course at any time. But here we go, in pursuit of more joy.

What else we’re thinking about

Speaking of needing more joy in our lives, here is my pandemic PSA: If you haven’t watched Younger, streaming on Amazon Prime, you’re in for hours of delight. Now, if you’re a serious TV viewer who isn’t able to suspend reality in 20-minute increments, then this show probably isn’t for you. But if you’re willing to buy into a plot that has a 40-year-old divorced mom (successfully) masquerading as a 26-year-old landing her first job in publishing and you enjoy watching continually unfolding drama in the lives of beautiful people, tune in! Six seasons of hilarious, touching, escapist TV await you (with a seventh to come).

Globe health columnist André Picard and senior editor Nicole MacIntyre discuss the many issues surrounding sending kids back to school. André says moving forward isn't about there being no COVID-19 cases, but limiting their number and severity through distancing, smaller classes, masks and good hygiene.

The Globe and Mail

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