Lia De Pauw is a solo mother with experience in child-centred international development, child and youth health, health equity, and public-health practice. She lives in Kingston.
My oldest son was in kindergarten during the last round of Ontario education contract negotiations and strike threats in 2019. I supported education unions wholeheartedly, believing they had children’s best interest in mind; I even donated my parent payments to my son’s teachers during their strike.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic – and the ensuing school closings – hit just days after my younger son’s birth by C-section. I ended up with a newborn and a confused, angry 6-year-old on my own after major surgery. It was a terrifying and intensely stressful situation to manage, and it was devastating to not be able to change the things that were causing him such distress. Now, with the threat of another school closing looming, I find myself grappling with familiar concerns and fears.
Schools – along with the family – are critical for children’s well-being and development, more so during times of crisis. They provide meaningful activity, routine, relationships with caring adults, opportunities for play and physical activity, and access to essential services and protections. Closing schools cut children off from all of this, and increase stress, conflict, and violence in their homes.
The first closing abruptly cut off many children off from their educators. My school board – Algonquin Lakeshore Catholic District – decided to go with remote asynchronous learning. The only contact with the educators was limited to one sentence written weekly for each child on a website – with no response if a child wrote back – until weekly video calls were started in the final weeks of June.
My son was delighted to be back in school in September, 2020, and he was blessed with an outstanding and caring teacher. But the yo-yo disruptions of school closings continued from there: Several weeks after the winter break; from mid-April, 2021, onward (along with an ill-conceived and short-lived attempt to close playgrounds yet again); and again in early 2022. His Grade 1 educator put more effort into maintaining a connection with the students during closures, but the relationship still ended abruptly.
The emotional, economic, relational, and health costs of these disruptions have had devastating effects on my oldest son and our family that reverberate to this day. Three of his first four school years were disrupted and shortened.
I spent more than $30,000 on extra childcare to help us cope with closings and the incredible amount of child-related absences owing to COVID-19 restrictions. I faced an impossible choice, between my son’s education or our household income, during the 2022 closures – not to mention the incredible stress of trying to manage all this.
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So it’s little wonder that the threat of yet more closings owing to labour action has left many parents angry. It peels back a festering wound: the painful feeling that children and families – especially mothers – were not a priority during the pandemic. No one seemed focused on what was best for children in discussions around schools, nor on doing any kind of child-centred risk-benefit analysis.
The harms to our children after three years of school closings, lost relationships, and social isolation are increasingly clear. Children are now in crisis, and the effects of school closings during the pandemic are likely to follow this generation through their lifetimes. The last thing children need is more school disruptions.
A caring, responsible society would be moving heaven and earth to help children recover from the pandemic. Instead, the Ford government and the education unions are using children as pawns in their dispute, with no one to speak for the rights and needs of children and their families.
Like many parents, I value the workers in our schools. I understand the issues in this dispute are complicated. But children and families will be the losers in any labour action.
People and society are fragile at this point: we have little left to manage the emotional and financial consequences of more closings. How will yet more missed days of work affect our job security, or our ability to pay for housing and food?
How will we handle the memories and emotions of this latest school disruption? Will there be an increase in working parents going on stress leave? What does this disruption mean for parents who work in hospitals, which need every single worker?
What are the chances that striking will get the 11.7 per cent annual increase in wages education workers want? Will children and families just be hurt again for no meaningful change? Who is thinking about these questions?
Ontario needs to take steps to keep children in schools and not allow any further disruptions – not for labour disputes, not for COVID-19. Declare schools essential if that’s what it takes.
And then we need to defend children’s rights: with the creation of a children’s commissioner with an explicit mandate to look out for children, their rights, and their well-being, and with an independent parents’ and students’ union to represent their interests.
Our children need this. They have been through too much already.