“Do I have school tomorrow, mum?”
My son would ask me this question every night for the first six months of the pandemic. It became a familiar part of our bedtime routine, after pyjamas were put on and teeth were brushed. He’d seek his mother’s reassurance; meanwhile, I’d struggle to find the words. How do I tell my kids that everything will be OK, when I’m not sure that it will?
My nine-year-old son, Isaiah, is severely intellectually disabled and considered non-verbal. One of my most heartbreaking experiences as a parent has been to watch him struggle without school, applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy or playgrounds, all shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19. His anxiety would rise like steam off of his skin, palpable to me and his three siblings, his distress reverberating throughout our Toronto home.
So when Ontario announced that schools would reopen in September, I could finally tell him “yes,” emphatically and with relief. At the time, it was an easy decision. Isaiah thrives on routine and consistency — the keys to his mental health. I felt relief that I could give him what he’d been missing since the pandemic started.
We went over rules about masks and hand sanitizer and social distancing. Then, the night before his first day, I learned that class sizes at his downtown school were set to be absolutely massive compared to others — 34 kids, larger than Ontario’s average of 24.5 (an average that, presumably, most schools have the funding to support), and significantly larger than the 15- to 20-student class sizes of schools in neighbouring catchments.
My heart sank. It felt like I had to choose between my son’s continued development and mental health, and putting him at significant risk of infection.
Exposure to one classroom of 34 is risky enough; six is untenable in the extreme.
Isaiah attends an old school in Toronto’s Regent Park. The community is vibrant, the stuff downtown is made of — filled with new immigrant...