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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

What no one ever tells you about parenting is that every decision seems like the wrong one. You wander through life trying to make the least bad decisions for your kids, and watch your neighbours make different ones with a mixture of horror and envy. I’ve tried to channel the insouciance of my own parents, who would occasionally check to make sure that their four children were still breathing, but the times won’t allow it.

Because the times have given us the toxic gift of the pandemic. Now, parents are facing back-to-school decisions involving a number of variables that would make Stephen Hawking’s head spin. Parents of younger children have to worry about whether their kid can keep a mask on her face, and stay far enough from Taylor when she really wants to steal that mini chocolate bar from Taylor’s lunch bag.

They have to worry about class sizes, and ventilation, and whether a potential outbreak could spread illness to vulnerable members of the community (and teachers). But they do have an advantage: A six-year-old will do what you tell her, generally, given the right combination of reason and bribes. A 16-year-old, though – that’s a different story.

Canada’s back-to-school plans: The latest news, and resources on COVID-19 and your kids

The parent making back-to-school decisions with high schoolers – with, not for – faces a whole different series of challenges, ones that I haven’t heard as much about. There are new terms to learn: quadmester, a word I’d thought only existed in the Scrabble dictionary, and the oxymoron of “live virtual learning.” Both are part of the reopening plans at the Toronto District School Board, where my daughter will be going back to school for Grade 10. And I do mean “going back.” After seven months of enforced proximity to her parents, during which she informed us icily “you exist too loudly,” she will be at school the second the doors open. No, probably 10 minutes before.

This seemed to be the general consensus among the parents of teenagers I heard from for this column. As one woman put it: “My teen didn’t offer us a choice. I don’t think we could keep her home if we wanted to.” A single mom said she’d be sending her boys back without reservation: “I have no COVID scaries and never did. It was a rough ride working from home while they were home but we survived.” A mother in Ottawa told me that, while she was worried about her son’s school’s antiquated ventilation system, he already had one foot out the door. “He hated online learning. He can’t wait to go back.” Others said that it was a knuckle-chewing calculation: physical health versus mental health. Research has shown that the pandemic and its restrictions are having crushing effects on young people’s mental health.

For some kids, especially those with anxiety, returning to school during a health crisis presents a whole new set of fears. The mother of a boy going into Grade 11 said the TDSB’s constantly changing plans were upsetting to the family, and her son “doesn’t feel comfortable going back.” A mother in Israel, where there have been outbreaks of virus tied to school reopenings, said she felt that she couldn’t in good conscience send her children back and that she was considering home-schooling instead.

I personally couldn’t home school if you threatened to bludgeon me with a whiteboard. While I obviously worry about the possibility of viral spread through high schools, I’m equally worried about what happens to teenagers who are kept in the nest too long. The period of adolescence is crucial for developing autonomy and self-identity. Teenagers need each other. They need hallways to lurk in, bathrooms to scheme in, auditoriums where they discover that maybe they weren’t meant to be stars, but have a real talent for lighting design instead.

One mother I spoke to called this the “choose your own adventure” aspect of high school. Even if you hated high school, it at least provided a sense of possibility, of pathways that led to different futures. This mother is sending her two kids with special needs back to school because they want to go, and because of all the extracurricular skills they learn there: How to maintain a routine, socialize with different kinds of people, understand the value of punctuality. Okay, that might be a bit of stretch. We’re talking teenagers here.

No decision that a parent makes in conjunction with their teenager is going to be easy, so I would say: Cut yourself some slack. Try not to obsess over what the people across the street are doing. (Unless they’re having pool parties and licking each other’s faces. Then feel free to judge.) Uncertainty is anathema to our skittish brains, but we’re going to have to learn to live with it for a while.

The United Nations calls this pandemic “the largest disruption of education ever. … [A] generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.” It will hit poor and marginalized kids, who already do not have the same access to technology as their wealthier peers, the hardest. The UN’s main recommendation is to reopen schools – safely, with increased investment in resources.

It’s going to be a weird year for students returning to high school: There will be new rules, different schedules, and restrictions on sports and theatre and music. But it’s got to be better than sitting under the increasingly glassy eyes of their panicky parents. The weirdest thing about 2020 may be that, for the first time ever, kids can’t wait for school to start.

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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