Days into classes, parents find peace with decisions despite anxieties

The second week of school is already underway, but there are still outstanding stresses and questions for parents either sending their kids to classes or helping them navigate online learning at home. 

Not least of which is a constant stream of reports of new cases popping up among students returning to classes. 

CBC News is following four families as they navigate the return to classes amidst a pandemic, and in this, the second instalment, the parents are no less concerned about the welfare of their children and all the pitfalls and benefits tied to their individual choices. 

From Keltie Bilkoski, whose two children attend a private school with strictly enforced protocols, to Adora Nwofor, who says she’s still largely in the dark regarding details of hub learning for her two daughters, the stress of the parents varies, but all have found some measure of peace in their decisions. 

Virginia Wong

Virgina Wong agonized over the decision of whether to send her daughter back into the classroom but ultimately decided it was for the best. (Virginia Wong)

Virginia Wong wasn’t sure until the last minute what to do about her daughter’s schooling, mulling over a dizzying array of factors in order to make her decision. Finally settling on in-class learning, she was almost immediately confronted with news that a student had tested positive in her daughter’s high school. 

That was quickly followed by at least one more after she spoke with CBC News. 

Wong says she was hoping they’d at least get through a couple of weeks without infections popping up in the school. 

“No decision is the right decision, but we didn’t make the decision lightly,” she said Wednesday morning. 

“And we weighed a lot of options. And we went into this journey with significance, anxiety and a degree of hope.”

Wong’s situation is complicated by the fact that there are family members in her home who are severely immunocompromised. 

However, she says she’s at peace with the decision, citing the positives of in-class learning and experience and the fact her daughter is well-versed in keeping infections away from her family members. 

Her daughter is also happy to be back in class.

Still, Wong wishes the government and school boards had looked more at a staggered re-entry plan that allowed more testing of protocols before going all-in, and she hopes there will be more consideration about how to involve older kids in decisions.

“I really feel strongly that messaging for young adults in high school or post-secondary students needs to be different than what you’re telling the elementary or junior high students, because … you’re telling them what to do. You’re dictating,” she said. 

“But here for young adults and high school students, you need to encourage, persuade and have them buy into your pitch.”

Anna George

Anna George says her children are happy to be back in classes and she’s pleased with the way her school has handled the return. (Submitted by Anna George)

Anna George says she was surprised at how normal everything seemed for her two boys returning to their Catholic school. 

“They, you know, have their lunch outside and they went in special doors, you know, the proper protocols were in place, but it worked out really well for them,” she said.

“I think we have just a really amazing staff and administration at our school and they made them feel really, really safe there.”

George says both of her boys were excited to return to classes, and while they didn’t like some of the protocols like eating their lunch separated, she was surprised at their lack of fear — something she was prepared for and concerned about.  

A self-described involved parent who chairs the school’s council, George was well informed about the specific plans for dealing with the pandemic for her children, but she was caught off guard by the fact there could be 30 or more kids in one of her sons’ classes. 

“Because I have such open communication with the principal, I did talk to him last week and said, ‘Look, you know, my son had this many kids in this class, like, is that for real?'” she said. 

“He said, you know, that’s the way it is, and until Wednesday, we won’t even really know our confirmed numbers because, of course, there’s still a chance that some parents could pull out to do online or that they could choose to come into the classroom.”

George says she’s sympathetic to the teachers and administrators going through the first week of school without any clear indications on what class sizes will look like.

Adora Nwofor

Adora Nwofor decided to enrol her children in online hub learning, but says there’s a lack of information at this time. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Adora Nwofor says she has very little information on what the school year will look like for her two daughters after signing them up for hub learning through the Calgary Board of Education.

“So we got information that says you should sign up by Aug. 24. We did. Then no information. Like, zero information,” said Nwofor on Wednesday. 

She says she has been getting information about students going back for in-class instruction.

Nwofor stands out from the other parents in that her kids haven’t started classes yet, with the only guidance so far being that they should engage in self-directed learning until hub classes are up and running. 

She says that should start on Sept. 14, but could be as late as Sept. 18, according to an email she received. She’s not sure if her kids will be with other students and teachers from their designated school or whether it will be spread out among schools. 

Despite that paucity of information, however, Nwofor says she is happy with her decision to keep her two daughters home. 

“No matter what happens, I’d be happy with this decision,” she said. 

Her kids are torn. One is happy with the decision, while the other would rather be surrounded by others in class. 

And even though she feels she made the right call based on her concerns about the virus and infections, she does worry about the long-term implications of learning at home in front of a screen versus being in person — for her children’s success and their mental well-being.  

“I am a little bit anxious about this, not just for illness, but for navigating the education system in the next two, three, five, 10 years,” said Nwofor. 

“Because the Grade 7, you know, everybody says we’re not going to count it, but we know they’re going to count it somewhere. And then also, hub learning, are they going to suggest that hub learning is not as impactful?”

Nwofor says there are also questions of oppression and marginalization that can exacerbate the situation.

Keltie Bilkoski

Keltie Bilkoski says her children’s private school has more space to spread out than public schools like the one pictured. (David Bajer/CBC)

Keltie Bilkoski doesn’t have any real concerns over the way her private school has handled the return to classes. But she did experience her first hiccup right out of the gate. Her younger school-age daughter caught a cold and had to miss the first week of school while waiting for test results to come back.

Bilkoski says her school has been strict in enforcing the rules and has the ability to spread the students out and sanitize them and take their temperatures as they come through the doors in the morning. 

“It’s not going to work when it’s minus 20 degrees, so I don’t know how the school is going to fix that in the wintertime,” she said.  

“But right now, with the warm weather and, you know, the sunshine, the no rain, it works really, really well.”

Bilkoski says her oldest daughter has been enjoying the modified gym class that includes games of tag with pool noodles, but isn’t a fan of all the changes.

“She doesn’t like recess because all the Grade 2 classes go out for recess together, but they have to sort of stay in this box with their class. So she can see friends from other classes, but you’re not allowed to play with them,” she said. 

The strict enforcement of rules at the school doesn’t just apply to the kids, either. 

“We have to do this sort of checklist before they even are allowed in the school,” said Bilkoski. 

“And I mean, I forgot to do the checklist this morning because it was just a crazy morning. And they’re like, well go to your car, get on your phone, do the checklist before you can come in.”

She says she was sort of delusional, not thinking about the fact that cases in schools are likely to pop up, but says the school seems to be preparing online tools to deal with a possible infection. 

In addition, she says due to the small class sizes and ample space, the school has the ability to shut down a classroom in the case of a positive infection.

“They’ll go above and beyond what AHS tells them to do,” she said. 

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