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Brianna Bell sits with her daughter, in the basement of her new home in Guelph, Ont., on Monday, Dec., 9, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Brianna Bell is a freelance journalist based in Guelph, Ont.

When Ontario’s Doug Ford government announced that students would be resuming classes full-time in September, only six weeks before school was starting, I heaved a sigh of relief. As of mid-March I’ve put my career on hold and have been the main caregiver for my three kids with minimal outside support.

While there was an uproar about Mr. Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s back-to-school “plan,” most parents haven’t had any other choice but to send their kids back. As of mid-August the school board in my area, The Upper Grand District School Board, reported that almost 90 per cent of parents planned to send their kids to school in September.

In the days leading up to the return to school, I started receiving e-mails from our school board discussing what to do in the event that your child is ill. I brushed it off, assuming that with physical distancing, all-day face masks, and constant hand-washing, that the kids would likely not pick up too many bugs this year. A few days after school started my eldest daughter woke up with a fever, a sore throat, and a dry cough. Panicked, I quickly called the school, unsure of what the proper protocol would be – the earlier communications they’d sent were unclear and confusing when actually faced with a sick child. It turned out the school wasn’t sure either. Do all kids stay home, or just symptomatic kids? Do all parents stay home? Do we get tested and quarantine? It wasn’t a simple yes or no.

We ended up getting tested for COVID-19, and spent the next six days in quarantine as a family. My husband, who works a salaried job as a pastor and chaplain, was in bed most of the week. I was the healthiest, but I was too busy taking care of everyone to even attempt working on any of my freelance assignments. Luckily, my husband was still paid for the missed days, but I lost nearly a week’s worth of income. Eventually, we found out that we were negative for COVID-19.

The following week felt like we were walking on eggshells. I watched as nearby friends and neighbours stayed home with cold and flu symptoms, quarantining just like we had. At the end of the week, after around eight days of health, my middle daughter woke up with a headache and a fever. We spent the weekend resting, and the next week we kept just our symptomatic child at home. The second time around I felt less concerned and more relaxed, already desensitized to the process and we weren’t even into October.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has announced that funding will be available for anyone who takes time off due to COVID-19 symptoms, or caregiving for someone with symptoms. The two benefits, Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, are still pending the passage of legislation. In the meantime, we’re well into a second wave, and many parents are dealing with fall colds and flu. Even with the benefit, which provides $500 a week for up to 26 weeks for eligible households, employees still need to deal with bills that may exceed the benefit paid, and less-than-understanding employers.

Earlier this week the Ontario government updated the COVID school screening tool, but parents are still required to keep their child home if they have a newly developed sore throat or runny nose. Parents will have to make the decision between keeping their sick child home, or paying their bills. My worry is that as the school year goes on, parents will listen to the COVID screening guidelines less and less; and really, who can blame us? We’re stuck in an impossible situation, trying to pay our mortgages and keep food on the table, which for many means sending the kids to school.

Parents need the government to address the unique challenges of parenting young children during a pandemic, while also trying to work. Whether it’s more pharmacy testing or in-school testing for students with a minimum of 48-hours for results, or legislation that requires full pay and no red tape for caregivers of children under 12.

Keeping kids home for every cold or flu symptom will not be sustainable for parents long-term. We need a different plan, because this one isn’t working for us.

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