'It's a big deal for kids': Ontario's back-to-school plan draws fears, praise

TORONTO — It's getting harder and harder for Rachel Huot to keep the tone positive when she talks to her children about going back to school.The Toronto-based mother of three — including two school-aged children — said she's always tried to keep the mood upbeat, but the province's newly released plan for returning to class in September has led to trepidation for her, and confusion for her kids."They want to be in school, but they've spent months hearing about safety risks and practising physical distancing, and walking down the street carefully and going into stores wearing masks. So it's a big deal for kids," she said.Huot is among the multitude of parents now grappling with whether to send their children back to school in September or keep them at home for another attempt at remote learning.And while some say they're thrilled with the government's plans, others are nervous.Huot, an organizer with the advocacy group Ontario Parent Action Network, said her biggest issue is that the province's plan doesn't mandate physical distancing, nor does it reduce class sizes for elementary students.Both measures were high on the list of recommendations in a report from Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children on how back-to-school should be handled."I think that we can't just pick and choose what strategies are going to keep our kids safe," she said, adding that she's waiting to hear from her school board about how it will implement the province's guidelines before deciding whether to send her two older kids — aged nine and 12 — back to the classroom.Teachers are also waiting for those more specific, board-level instructions, said Vickita Bhatt, a Grade 7 teacher in Peel Region.But she said she's not sure what the board could do to make her feel safe returning to the classroom."I'm afraid for my students, I'm afraid for their families, and I'm afraid for my colleagues and myself," she said. "Schools are supposed to be a safe place for children, but this plan really doesn't adequately address the safety concerns of students or staff. I mean, restaurants, grocery stores and gyms have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools."Bhatt said she expects that her class this year will have 25 students, and she doesn't think it will be possible to keep them distanced.Nor does she know how she'll manage the prospect of teaching in class and providing online learning materials to students kept home by wary parents."We haven't been told how this plan is actually going to be coming into fruition, so we have no idea what is expected of us," she said.Even so, Bhatt said she and her colleagues know how important it is to return to the classroom."We know the mental health of our students is at stake," she said. "We want to be in school, we just want to do it safely."Joanna Cabral, whose two sons attend school in Peel Region, said she's pleased with the government's plans, in large part because her children's mental health has suffered during the pandemic.Cabral said her kids, aged eight and 16, struggled with online learning. A return to class is welcome news for her family."They need that structure back," she said. "And honestly, I don't think the government would send our kids back to school if they didn't feel like they were safe."Cabral's eldest son, who will be in Grade 11, will only be in school half the time because Peel is one of two dozen boards where high schoolers will attend class part-time, in cohorts of 15.She said that prospect is better than nothing. She works from home, so they'll figure something out for the times when he isn't in class.Her one concern is about the province's new masking requirement, which states students in Grade 4 and up need to wear face coverings while attending class or spending time in common spaces.She said she's not sure how it will be enforced, particularly for younger children."I don't know how it's gonna be for the kids," she said. "That's very hard to wear a mask." This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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