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(L-R) Family members Paramjit Matharu, eight-year-old Sukhamani, and Rosy and Gurdeep Singh, outside their home in Vaughan, Ont., on Aug. 21, 2020.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

For Nina Chandarana, one of the hardest parts about sending her two children back to school next month is what it will mean for her parents.

They live in a condo down the street, a location they chose in order to be close to their grandchildren. They often look after Ms. Chandarana’s seven-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

But with the COVID-19 risks that come with sending her kids back to school, the children will have to isolate from their grandparents.

“It’s going to be hard. My parents are a big part of our life and our kids’ life in a huge way,” said Ms. Chandarana, a performance coach and university instructor who lives in Toronto.

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As millions of children across Canada head back to school, many parents are making the same decision to isolate their kids from their grandparents – at least until the risks of infection and transmission are overcome. The decision will have many undesirable consequences – from families losing out on the child care grandparents often provide to the emotional toll it will take on grandparents and grandchildren alike.

Given how difficult isolation can be, it is essential that families stay in touch however they can, said Robert Madan, the chief of psychiatry at Baycrest Health Sciences, a hospital for the elderly in Toronto.

“The older adult population wants to continue to be active and see family,” he said. “The regularity of contact through whatever means is important. It’s something to look forward to.”

That could mean a regularly scheduled phone call or talking over FaceTime, Dr. Madan said.

Although many parents are understandably worried about the health risks posed by sending children back to school, they shouldn’t rush to isolate children from their grandparents, said Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, a charitable organization based in Ottawa.

“The benefits of grandchild-grandparent connections are so rich and so important that we have to figure out a way to stay connected,” she said.

We need to “let the science guide us,” Ms. Spinks said. If the number of cases of COVID-19 remains low, it may still be safe for grandchildren to see their grandparents, she said. “We don’t want children and grandparents to miss out on the joy of multigenerational relationships because of COVID.”

A study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children nine and under infected others in their households 5.6 per cent of the time, whereas those between the ages of 10 and 19 spread the virus at the same rate as adults, almost 19 per cent of the time. With people 60 and older at particular risk of becoming very ill or dying from COVID-19, plus the uncertainty of how school environments might affect transmission of the virus, caution is certainly understandable.

Indeed, for many parents, their concerns over what might happen when kids return to school are simply too great to allow in-person contact with grandparents.

Which is why some parents are choosing to keep their kids out of school.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2017 general social survey, Canada is home to more than 7.5 million grandparents. For many, isolation will be next to impossible: There are more than 400,000 multigenerational households in Canada, according to the most recent census data.

Rosy Singh lives with her husband, their eight-year-old daughter and her mother in Vaughan, Ont.

“We don’t let my mom go anywhere except the doctor’s office,” Ms. Singh said. Her husband, a chef, has been sleeping in the basement to minimize his exposure to his mother-in-law.

The Singhs have decided not to send their daughter back to school for fear that doing so might expose her grandmother to the coronavirus.

“I don’t want to take that risk,” Ms. Singh said. “Reluctantly, we’re doing online [schooling].”

She may send her daughter to school “if things are good in January.”

Karen Johnson has been trying to spend as much time as possible with her two sons, 13 and 11, and her parents this summer – having family barbecues, bringing the boys to help her mother in the garden, having her parents come watch the boys play soccer and take part in other family activities – because she knows the boys will have to be kept away from their grandparents after school starts.

“Even now my boys are hesitant to hug my mom and dad,” said Ms. Johnson, who lives in Toronto.

She has been doing the shopping for her parents since March. Her father has a heart condition and diabetes – the kind of underlying conditions that make people vulnerable to serious COVID-19 outcomes – so when the family does get together, everyone wears masks.

“We only started going inside their house in June,” Ms. Johnson said.

Those times together have been a joy, she said. “We’re a very huggy family.”

But when the boys return to school, the family will revert to the physical-distancing measures they adopted in the spring.

“In September, for my dad’s birthday, we won’t be able to go into their house,” Ms. Johnson said. They may have cake on her deck. “No hugging, no kissing, very strict on the six feet apart.”

And the sleepovers at their grandparents’ house, when the boys get to stay up late and eat whatever they want, while Ms. Johnson and her husband enjoy some free time?

“That’s so off the table,” she said.

As difficult as it will be, she will make sure her sons stay in touch with her parents.

“They’re really close. So they talk on the phone. They’re in daily contact with my parents,” she said.

Ms. Chandarana wants her kids to return to school so they can spend time with their peers.

“From a social standpoint, it’s really so important,” she said.

She plans on isolating her kids from her parents for at least the first month of school. If the weather is nice enough in September and there is no sign of a spike in cases, she might allow her kids to go on walks with her parents on the condition they all stay six feet apart.

It would be a small gesture, but one that would be very good for her parents’ well-being, she said.

“Just being on their own, by themselves, is really challenging.”

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.

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