A lot of people are nervous right now, and understandably so. Within days, thousands of children in Ontario will be heading back to school. Not all of them though. Some parents will decide to keep their children at home and many students will opt for online education, all choices allowed by the provincial government. Current estimates are that about 70 per cent of students will return to in-class learning this week.
As the economy reopens, as people start to get back to work, as kids get back to school, and as many health care experts predict a second wave of the virus, there are many people who sincerely question whether all of this is premature. And when the COVID-19 curve starts to go up again, as it surely will, as society begins to reengage, no matter how carefully, there will be those who will not hesitate to shout “I told you so” and point fingers at anyone, especially the politicians, who have the responsibility of deciding how and when to begin returning to some degree of normality.
There is another side to that coin, however, and that is what happens if we don’t begin to crawl out of the trenches and shed some of the restrictions placed on us by the COVID-19 pandemic? At what point do we suck it up, put as many safety measures in place as reasonably possible, and then, as they say, keep calm and carry on? Most importantly, what are the consequences if we don’t do that, not just for the economy, but for our mental health and that of our young people as well.
Earlier this summer, McMaster University in Hamilton, in conjunction with the Offord Centre for Child Studies, a prestigious research institute focused on child and youth mental health, conducted a survey to determine what Ontario families with children have been experiencing in the context of COVID-19. The survey was completed by 7,434 caregivers/parents, representing over 14,000 children. Some of the findings are troubling.
Most significant is a finding that almost 60 per cent of the caregivers/parents surveyed meet the criteria for depression and 40 per cent of parents/caregivers reported a deterioration in their children’s behaviour or mood. Thirty-two per cent of parents reported needing assistance with their children’s behaviour and/or mood during the pandemic. Parents also expressed concern about their children falling behind in their education and the effect this might have on their futures.
The survey also uncovered disturbing trends in increased anxiety for parents, resulting in a 68.9 per cent increase in alcohol consumption and an 89.7 per cent increase in the intake of cannabis. As well, 41.2 per cent of parents reported high levels of alienation, conflict or anger with their spouse, much of which included yelling and criticism. All of this had a negative impact on family relations.
The Offord survey is an important snapshot of what parents and families have been experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the forefront is depression and anxiety. Since the survey was concluded in June, it is likely that these finding have only increased over the summer, as fall activities loom.
This is not a pretty picture and to me underlines the urgency to return to a form of normality that will allow our children to return to school and parents to return to work. That simply needs to happen. Obviously there will be risks but as in any crisis or confrontation, risk must be balanced with an ability to move forward and with a determination to provide an atmosphere of hope, economic stability, and a sense of well-being.
There are many who will argue that while all of this may be true, the decision makers, the politicians, and, in relation to school opening, the Ford Government in particular, are not doing enough to keep people safe.
In a pandemic, safety first is a laudable slogan but it is an unachievable goal unless society is completely locked down. The achievable goal is as much safety as is reasonably possible as we return to some form of normality, recognizing that it carries with it an inevitable increase in the level of risk.
During the COVID-19 crisis, mistakes have been made at both the federal and provincial levels. Overall, however, decisions that have been made have resulted in better virus statistics than had been anticipated. Unlike Donald Trump, both the Ford and Trudeau governments have been assiduous in listening to and accepting expert scientific and medical advice when making the hard decisions they are called upon to do. In Ontario, that includes the reopening of schools.
Politicians are not magicians. They cannot make this virus go away and again, unlike Donald Trump, they know that. The Ford Government’s plan to reopen schools in Ontario may not be perfect but it is based on expert medical consultation and agreement. It is also a necessary step in moving forward. No plan will reach perfection and any plan must balance safety with an effective strategy and ability to provide this essential service to those who need it.
There will be children, teachers, and families who will test positive for the COVID-19 virus. That is inevitable as long as students are in school and no matter the class sizes or the safety measures. As of Tuesday, teachers become frontline workers, just like doctors and nurses and other health care workers. But arm-chair critics or those with a partisan or vested interest in denigrating the Ford Government are not going to protect them or the students they serve.
This is not a time for the politics of outrage or divisionism. Rather, it is a time to walk together through a field of uncertainty, concern, and necessity, hoping for the best, preparing for less than perfection, and plugging the holes as we go along, without acrimony, without partisan finger-pointing, just getting the job done, as best we can.
Surely that is the better way for all concerned.
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