Life moves pretty fast when you have kids. As a parent, preserving precious brain capacity means forgetting the stages of childhood development almost as soon as they’ve passed.
For instance, parents of older children often don’t recall how old their babies were when they cut their first teeth. And by the time you celebrate your kid’s first birthday, you’ve likely forgotten how to swaddle a newborn. When you drop them off for their first day of school, it might be difficult to recall when they began sleeping through the night.
I just wish it were as easy to move on from the unhappy memories of navigating a bewildering array of apps to help a kindergartener learn how to read and count in early 2020. There is a constant threat that this particular phase could repeat itself.
It’s not the early days of the pandemic any more. We know more about the coronavirus. We have tools and treatments. And parents have learned a new coping skill: an outlook where you acknowledge there are so many unknowns – we could have to shift to at-home, online learning at some point this month, or we might face a new pandemic variant this spring – that it’s best to get the kids to school while you can.
Most parents are choosing to send their children to school, even as COVID-19 cases in Alberta sit at record highs. The province’s classrooms opened up again on Monday. On Wednesday, one fifth of Calgary public students were absent, including a smaller group who were out because of illness.
Of course, we now know the incredible power of vaccines, and we understand that this Omicron strain is highly contagious but is apparently milder (not necessarily mild) compared with other variants of the virus. These things are playing a huge part in parents’ and guardians’ decisions to send kids to class.
This shouldn’t be confused with being unconcerned about risks of COVID-19 spreading in schools. Wanting your kids to be in class isn’t about setting aside the seriousness of pediatric hospitalizations, the risks of long COVID, or the fact that the spread of the Omicron variant could further exhaust an already heaving health care system.
But at this moment, I am really grateful for the days when kids can go to school. They need to be there for a long list of academic, social and mental-health reasons. Kids have missed out on so much in two years, including indispensable adjacent activities such as lunch, recess, sports and clubs. Five-year-olds have masked up and learned to stay physically apart. They have some serious catching up to do.
Since the health risks to kids from COVID-19 are lower than they are for adults, there’s a cogent argument being made that kids are now carrying a burden for their unvaccinated elders. Premier Jason Kenney noted this week that 3 to 4 per cent of Albertans 70 or older still haven’t received first vaccine doses and “are at radically higher levels of risk than kids.”
There is also not a clear line between closing schools and keeping COVID-19 deaths among adults down. And many parents, including health care professionals and other essential workers, cannot do their jobs if their children are not in school.
In Alberta, there’s less anger being directed at the government during this wave of the pandemic, so far, compared with the province’s awful fourth wave. Case numbers might not have reached their peak yet, but the province is less of an outlier this time (we can still hope Mr. Kenney will never again predict a “best” season ever, or declare that health restrictions are a thing of the past). Other provinces and jurisdictions have been caught flat-footed by Omicron, too.
Nearly everyone says they want kids back in school. It’s a question of what your definition of safe is – classrooms are still waiting on their allotments of rapid tests – and whether there are enough teachers who don’t have Omicron to keep the system running.
Alberta NDP critic David Eggen said the situation in Alberta schools is deteriorating by the day, and that there are serious questions about whether there will be enough staff or substitutes in the days and weeks ahead. Kids could be taught by their principals, or by teachers who work in school boards’ headquarters as strategists.
The NDP also argues the province should be setting up in-school vaccine clinics to boost Alberta’s low immunization rate among eligible children. However, Mr. Kenney said on Thursday that past school clinics for teenagers had low uptake, and that parents generally want to be with their children when they’re getting vaccinated.
Parents and guardians have also expressed a desire to see how vaccinating children plays out in other places, such as the United States. “We are now evaluating to see if there’s anything else that we could do at this particular time to make it easier for parents,” Mr. Kenney said.
But by this point, your approach to schools during this fifth wave might have less to do with the specific nuts and bolts of government policy, and more to do with your view on the big questions of the pandemic.
Have you been able to keep your household financially afloat, or does someone need to get back to work? How much do you trust your provincial government’s handling of the pandemic? Does someone in your household have a health condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness if they get Omicron? Are your kids too young to be immunized?
And maybe: Have your children spent way too many of their key moments inside your home, away from friends and teachers, staring at screens?
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