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COVID-19 has exposed inequalities in education and child care that we can’t fix at the last minute. For now, all we can do is our best to make sure children don’t fall behind

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Students practice physical distancing at École élémentaire catholique Jonathan-Pitre in Manotick, Ont.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

Last month, a Canadian friend living in Germany e-mailed me to rhapsodize over her daughters’ first day of school. “Einschulung,” she wrote, “is the most BEAUTIFUL of German traditions. I love it!” She went on to describe the many rituals associated with school entry in Germany: the dressed-up parents, the celebrations with extended family and the ubiquitous Schultueten – cone-shaped packages containing school supplies and candies – that are bestowed on each new student.

It felt like a dispatch from another planet. Here in Toronto, the question of how and when kids would return to school was so freighted with anxiety, anger and confusion that I opted to focus on keeping my kids hydrated and well-swum instead.

I asked my friend if any concessions had been made to the virus circulating with roughly the same virulence through her part of the world as through mine, and she responded that, yes, parents had been asked to space out during the school-opening ceremony and to hum rather than sing the songs. And that everyone was wearing masks.

The breeziness of her report, later compounded by more of the kind from other European friends (I used to live there) who finally had time to write now that their kids were back at school, was encouraging.

But it also raised a question. Why were parents here raging against the machine – lobbying MPPs, peppering trustees with questions, forming “Safe September” groups, launching private learning pods, hiring tutors, panic-buying curriculum workbooks – while parents elsewhere seemed to be getting on with their lives, fingers crossed?

A collage of images came to mind of the publicly funded preschool my son attended in Berlin: its gleaming white mini-bathrooms, the neatly ordered cubbies containing each child’s washcloth and toothbrush, the greenhouse of sorts where the children napped with all windows open.

Then I thought of the elementary school my kids attended when we moved to Toronto, with its carefully positioned buckets capturing drips from the leaking roof, the scuzzy bathrooms with their empty soap dispensers and unshuttable cubicle doors, the dark corner of my son’s kindergarten classroom where he – as he once showed me – had been stashing weeks’ worth of rejected lunch morsels (mainly meat), after the lunchroom supervisor forbade him from throwing them out.

This pandemic has shone an unforgiving light on the cracks in our systems, most glaringly in elder care, but also in child care and education. No amount of last-minute emergency measures can fix them.

But perfection can’t be our goal. For now, we need to work together to get our kids back to some form of school, for their sake and for ours.

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Protesters gather outside Toronto's Royal York Hotel on Feb. 12 during a Canadian Club of Toronto luncheon with Education Minister Stephen Lecce.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Although it may seem like ancient history, it bears recalling that Ontario schools were already in rough shape when COVID-19 struck. Starting in November, one after the next – and ultimately all – of Ontario’s teachers’ unions had gone on strike to protest a raft of budget-saving measures including increased class sizes, mandatory online learning and the elimination of 3,500 teaching positions.

Relations between the government and teachers were scraping the bottom of a deep barrel, with then-education minister Lisa Thompson calling Ontario’s school system “broken,” Premier Doug Ford blaming “union thugs” and union leaders accusing the government of “hijacking” public education.

COVID-19 effectively buried those issues, relegating the settlements reached in March and April to the back pages as school boards faced the even-more bewildering questions of whether schools would reopen at all and, if not, how to deliver education to children in lockdown.

Priorities were turned on their heads. Parents who had reviled the possibility of online learning were now demanding the best of it. Teachers who had been withholding their services were suddenly required to deliver them remotely. And hard-nosed, penny-pinching Mr. Ford transformed before our eyes into the avuncular benefactor who, over the summer, has seen fit to channel $309-million plus a federal allocation of $381-million as well as an “unlocked” $500-million in boards’ reserve funds into Ontario schools.

What COVID-19 has not changed, however, is the sorry state of relations between the bodies responsible for education in this province. Watching the Toronto District School Board try over months to formulate a back-to-school plan that meets Ministry, public health and teacher’s union requirements has felt like sitting in the front row of a mud-wrestling match. When Toronto parents were first surveyed, mid-August, about their intentions for the fall, the robotic TDSB voice on the phone put it something like this (and I paraphrase): “The Ministry of Education has announced that kids will be going back to school this fall, five days a week, in full-sized classes. We don’t think it’s safe. Would your child like to participate anyway?”

Nor can this sudden prioritization of education make up for decades of underfunding that have left Ontario’s schools in their current state of decrepitude. The millions Mr. Ford is throwing at the COVID-19 challenge sound promising until measured against the $16.3-billion currently required to clear the repair backlog of Ontario’s schools. It’s a long-standing problem that takes on new significance in the context of a pandemic. Parents accustomed to bringing in fans during heatwaves for classrooms whose windows don’t open and to supplying Kleenex boxes and hand soap during flu season can hardly be faulted for questioning schools’ ability to manage a highly contagious respiratory virus.

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Marlene, a school bus driver, sits in her vehicle during a school tour in East Wiltshire, PEI.John Morris/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Another problem is the chronic shortage of school bus drivers. Again, this is not breaking news: In 2017, Ontario’s ombudsman released a report on the Greater Toronto Area’s “large-scale busing crisis” following an annus omnibus horribilis in which 60 bus routes across the city were left unmanned, leaving more than 2,600 school children waiting on curbs for buses that, in many cases, never showed up. COVID-19 only makes matters worse; the union representing bus drivers has announced that many of its drivers, most of whom are over 60, will not be putting themselves behind any wheel in a contained space with up to 72 children.

I don’t blame them – nor am I keen on my child being one of them, as he’s currently scheduled to be. Two years of busing experience have shown that, with no adult to enforce it, social order on school buses is a bureaucratic fantasy, assigned seating a pipe dream.

What this situation calls for, and what has been mandated in some provinces, is more buses with kids spaced out in them; what we’re about to see is fewer buses with kids squished closer together. The ministry’s guide to school reopening admits as much, referring to an “increased utilization of buses beyond one student per seat.” The guide also encourages parents to consider active personal travel, but when a couple of game parents in our neighbourhood did that, test-cycling the six-kilometre route through midtown, they discovered that our school, like many in Toronto, has no bike racks.

The frustration of parents is justified. Overlaid with the big-picture frustration of a situation beyond our control and fear that things could go very wrong, it makes it hard to get excited about the return to school.

Some parents are, but more in terms of “thank god the kids will be out from under” than “I can’t wait to meet her teacher,” because at this point, it’s not clear if or how or when we will, let alone who that person will be. Or if kids will actually tolerate masks for six consecutive hours. Or if they can discipline themselves to stay apart when every fibre of their beings want to do the opposite. Or how long it will take to establish all the policies and procedures – the scheduled bathroom breaks, the anchoring to desks, the choreographed movement through the school – before teachers can actually get down to teaching. Or whether the school will have already closed again by then.

It’s a lot of uncertainty, and that’s before you allow your brain to go to the scariest place: when your kid’s nose begins to run and he or she gets sent to a windowless sick room with five others.

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A sign reminds people to keep their distance at Hastings Community Elementary School in Vancouver,Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

I’ve taken consolation from the fact that the back-to-school plan has evolved in response to critical input as the funding to support it has grown, and that everyone has a vested interest in getting this right. It’s not “just” a matter of our children’s education, but also our economy’s ability to recover and our health care system’s ability to hold up.

But parents’ confidence continues to be undermined. Last week, Bonnie Henry – British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, who was well down the path to sainthood for her calm, non-partisan handling of the pandemic thus far – inserted herself into a government ad showing a handful of smiling, unmasked children scattered across a generous-sized classroom: a staged representation of exactly what teachers and parents have been asking for, but not getting.

And many Ontario families felt sideswiped this week when they learned that the province’s dual schooling plan – the choice between in-school and remote learning – would not result in smaller classes. Since this plan was announced in late July, there’s been a widespread perception, unchallenged by the powers that be, that in keeping kids home, families who could afford to would be easing the pressure on schools. This week’s announcement that those vacant spots will be filled, classes consolidated and teachers shuffled to meet the ministry’s funding requirements – predicated on prepandemic logic of maxing out the number of students per teacher – did not resonate well.

These setbacks, combined with a non-stop media feed of teachers expressing borderline dread of what’s to come, aren’t helpful. The rationales I’m hearing from families who have chosen remote learning are rooted less in a fear of viral spread than a fear that school will be deadeningly unfun; that in all the sanitization and atomization and artifice, schools will lose their souls – what makes kids want to be there in the first place. It will be up to our educators to prove them wrong, and it might take a while. To this end, we should be learning from successes elsewhere. Canadian schools should not just be musing about outdoor schooling but actively planning for it, as it has been shown to keep transmission down and spirits up.

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A father kisses his daughter before entering the schoolyard at Philippe-Labarre Elementary School in Montreal.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

The teachers I know are girding their loins. Some kids have come through the past half year with flying colours; made the most of their newfound freedom, taken up new hobbies or sports, read their way through bookshelves, turned neighbours into friends. Others have been glued to screens, cooped up in small apartments, afraid to come outside, at war with their siblings or themselves. Most kids probably fall somewhere in between. And while some families drilled down last spring on the work provided by school, others – including ours – took a more selective, sanity-first approach: If the assignment seemed interesting and doable, my kids did it. Some parents hired tutors or joined online learning clubs, others took matters into their own hands and tried to fill the holes they uncovered: multiplication tables, for instance, or sentence construction.

Most of that work fell to mothers, and if there is any one group that is particularly invested in the success of the back-to-school project, it would be us. We have cooked, cleaned, grocery-shopped, laundered, taught, consoled, refereed and worried our way through this pandemic, while squeezing in, turning down, compromising or outright losing our paid work. According to a recent report by RBC Economics, by April, women’s work force participation rate in Canada had fallen to its lowest rate in three decades. It can’t fully recover as long as mothers have to remain on-call for home schooling and school closings. Nor can we.

This pandemic is one long slog. If – as I often wish – it were a novel, we’d now be turning the page to “Chapter 5: And then they tried to reopen the schools.” It’s impossible to know how this chapter will end, or what twists and turns the plot will take. But kids should know that they’re important characters in this story; that they are living through extraordinary times, being tested in unusual ways and that, ultimately, they’ll come out the other side. My sons sometimes worry that they’re “falling behind,” and I reassure them they’re not. The consternated talk of a lost generation may apply to less fortunate parts of the world, but it need not apply here. In fact, it must not apply here. Schools will play a major role in determining how this story ends.

Back to school: Your questions answered

Watch Globe health columnist André Picard and senior editor Nicole MacIntyre discuss the many issues surrounding sending kids back to school.

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