Opinion

Parents of Ontario, maybe it's time to call a strike

Sarmishta Subramanian: In just a few weeks our kids will pile into overcrowded, poorly ventilated classrooms. Our voices aren’t being heard. So maybe it’s time to walk off the job (if we have jobs)

In October, 1975, the women of Iceland, fed up with earning substantially less than men, and intent on winning reproductive freedom and political representation, made an intriguing move: they went on strike. October 24, organized by several women’s organizations, had the genteel moniker of “Women’s Day Off.” But make no mistake, a strike is what it was: 90 per cent of the country’s women abandoned domestic work and boycotted their stations in factories, schools, offices and shops. The protest may have started out as a fantastical idea from Iceland’s feminist Redstockings, but by that fall, it had been embraced by women of all income and education levels.

It worked. A single day of men cooking, cleaning and minding children, leaving stores, banks and schools to close, was apparently enough to spark a gender-equality law the next year. Iceland tops global gender equity lists, and will soon become the first country to fine companies that cannot prove they pay men and women equally. Women make up close to 40 per cent of elected representatives in Parliament (a number that was even higher a few years ago).

As we approach the fall of 2020, I wonder if it’s time for Ontario’s parents to steal a page from the Redstockings’ handbook. Like them, many of us feel helpless, frustrated at not having our voices heard. We’ve bleated for months about getting our kids to go back to school as safely as possible. Yet the province’s plan for elementary schools at least—still being formulated by school boards, who were still getting direction from the government as of Aug. 13—stops short of this. Maybe action would speak louder.

Ever since our kids were sent home from school in March, parents have scrambled and bumbled along. We’ve adapted to the gloomy realities of a global pandemic like everyone else, as well as the travails of raising children in this time: the juggle of work and remote schooling; worry about loneliness, anxiety, stress; policing screen addiction and screen fatigue. We persevered, trusting that government and school authorities would restart school this fall based on the best advice from health experts.

READ: Ontario’s back-to-school plan ignores a glaringly obvious problem

Now, at the end of August, relief that kids would go back full-time has given way to confusion and concern over the game of roulette that awaits us. A close American relative shared with me her school district’s back-to-school document: an 81-page report dated July 31, outlining recess times, lunch routines, staggered school starts. I’m happy enough to not be living in her country, but I’d settle for a document one-tenth that length on school protocols. How big will kids’ classes be? How will furniture be arranged for distance? How will we screen for symptoms? (Never mind that many infected kids show no symptoms.) How will hundreds of kids enter and leave the building? Will parents be notified if there are positive cases in their school? Who the heck knows.

Over the past several weeks, conversations I’ve had with parents in my neighbourhood and across my city—anecdotal evidence, entirely—swing between anxiety, anger and nervous resolve. “I know, I know, it’s awful. There’s going to be COVID in schools. But we’ve decided we’re taking the risk. They need to go,” one parent told me last week. “Feels like we’re tossing her into a giant science experiment,” another Toronto mother told me by text. “With pretty high stakes.” We traded Gifs: Donald Glover making that barfing/crying face. Fresh Prince-era Will Smith in a massaging-temples loop. One parent whose child has anaphylactic allergies and asthma glumly outlined the choice she faces: her kid’s physical safety versus his mental health and happiness. It’s an extreme version of a decision many of us are making. “You know the place where I work isn’t letting me back until next year,” another wrote. “So what does that tell you?!”

The conversations sound less like back-to-school chats than pep talks before a night in Las Vegas. (Should we chance it? It’s worth the gamble. Hit!) We’ve pressed yes on the phone survey, most of us, and we’re sending our kids back to school. Probably. Most likely. We think so. After all, COVID case counts in Ontario, while they’re rising, still remain comparatively low—115 a day on Sunday. The country’s biggest city, Toronto, reported 20 cases a day. Could conditions get much more optimal?

READ: Reopening schools safely is now Canada’s most urgent task

And yet the contradictions nag at us. Public health tells us, still, to stay in our bubbles of 10 people; no overlapping bubbles. But kids in elementary school will spend their days with as many as 29 other kids. (Some of those kids then go off to daycare or soccer or music class with a different cohort—“faux-horts,” the writer Kim Pittaway called them. Multiply by number of siblings.) Meanwhile, though case numbers are still low, the virus’s reproduction rate has risen in Ontario, from .8 to 1.35 in the past three weeks. (Rates below 1 keep infection low.)

Here’s another disconnect: Kids with COVID-19 mostly have mild cases, but a study in the Journal of Pediatrics found that, early in infection, COVID-positive kids have a “viral load” in their noses similar to adults hospitalized from the disease. Yikes. Thankfully, masks can help keep that load from spreading. But “the wearing of masks is not an alternative to social distancing,” Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the WHO, said last week. “It’s not an alternative to hand washing. It’s not an alternative to decompressing class sizes.” Elementary class sizes, of course, are not shrinking, or shrinking by much. That’s troubling given a recent modeling study from the University of Waterloo, still awaiting peer review, that finds that every doubling of class size (from eight to 15 to 30 kids) can triple or quadruple the size of an outbreak and the number of school days lost.

As for distancing, even a 1-metre distance can help curb transmission. But will kids be a metre apart in class? Again, who knows. Our school’s principal has hosted four hours’ worth of Google Meets with parents to try to address such questions, but I’ve spoken to many parents who’ve had no contact at all with their kids’ school.

Not all parents seem worried. Some are reassured by the generally upward trend in recent months, or in the knowledge kids have a low risk of severe infection. Others have just fast-forwarded to the conclusion: there’s no alternative anyway. Kids need school. Parents—even fortunate ones whose jobs afford flexibility, and there are many who don’t have that—need school. In my hopeful moments, I imagine a fall that sees happier, better adjusted children and only modest spikes in cases, quickly contained with efficient testing and tracing. Cognitive dissonance, neuroscience shows, makes us uncomfortable. So rather than try to untwist the mental pretzel, we rationalize it: We are sending our kids into the kinds of crowded rooms we ourselves wouldn’t countenance doing our jobs in, but it’s okay because kids don’t get COVID-19 (except they do; 340,000 kids have tested positive in the U.S., good evidence that infection is possible), and they probably won’t transmit it (except some studies have found that they do). And besides, community infection rates are so low in Ontario we’re unlikely to see spikes (except they were low in Germany, too, and have spiked in schools in the two weeks since those reopened).

Mostly, we just hope it will work out. After all, there are few certainties in a global pandemic. There will never be a way to reopen schools, or anything else, that doesn’t involve some risk. On the other hand, there’s a demonstrated way to lower that risk: have fewer kids in class. Why hasn’t a government that very sensibly pressed pause on the entire economy for months not found a way to fund and deliver this? Why isn’t it facilitating the return to school in a way that is safe for families, and doesn’t risk taking everyone back to March 13, 2020, locked down in our houses, hoarding toilet paper and flour?

Not all experts despair of Ontario’s plan either, though many do. Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a prominent University of Toronto infectious diseases specialist, has expressed general support for the plan, while also continuing to emphasize the importance of physical distancing and testing. His colleague Dr. David Fisman, a leading epidemiologist has been more critical, and more blunt. “Ontario’s school opening plan is not a strong plan,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s a weak, incomplete, under-resourced plan that continues to be improvised 25 days (thanks to delay) before school opening.”

READ: There won’t be a seasonal second wave of coronavirus, there will be a behavioural one

And Sick Kids epidemiologist Dr. Diego Bassani noted that Denmark is often cited as evidence that school re-openings don’t have to spark a spike in COVID cases—but Denmark’s back-to-school program in spring looked quite different from ours. Classes returned gradually in April (first kindergarten to grade five and graduating classes, then all groups by May end). Class sizes were kept to 10 or 12, with no mandated masks. City parks were reserved for school use during school hours, and kids spent a lot of time outdoors. Many of the restrictions have since lifted. Not much of this resembles our school plan.

Like many, I was heartened by the Ontario government’s sober, evidence-based response to the pandemic in the spring. After a brief misstep, Premier Doug Ford made a commendable U-turn in the spotlight. Even as conservatives in some places downplayed COVID, to disastrous results, he and his government closed schools and businesses to contain the spread—a forward-thinking approach to saving the economy. The premier took to task hand-sanitizer opportunists and “yahoos” scoffing at mask laws. “I’m loving angry-dad Doug Ford,” a progressive wonk and author confided to me in spring. This magazine ran a story on Ford’s conversion. Ford not only offered hope for containing COVID; he pointed to a path out of a polarized politics, too.

The Ontario government’s response to the school file, however, has echoes of pre-pandemic political fights. Less than four weeks before the scheduled start to school, education minister Stephen Lecce announced a plan allowing school boards to spend their reserve funds (if they have them) to make classrooms safer. He also unveiled some additional funding for improving air quality—creating an absurdly short timeline to plan, fund, and execute the critical work needed in many of Ontario’s 5,000 schools. (Any apartment-dweller or homeowner knows it can sometimes take as long to schedule a single residential repair.) While doing so, he called for “flexibility” from teachers.

But this isn’t a teachers’ issue. It’s a parents’ issue, a children’s issue, and much more broadly a citizens’ issue. If a poorly conceived back-to-school plan ends up jeopardizing our hard-won gains on COVID, straining health care systems and the economy further, we’ll all be affected. “Class sizes” may translate in some minds to a contentious question batted back and forth across a labour negotiating table, but that’s not what it means for parents, and certainly not in this moment.

I say parents even though it’s mothers I’ve ended up speaking with in most cases. Certainly women will be disproportionately affected if the school plan backfires and kids end up at home again. In April, only 55 per cent of Canadian working-age women were in jobs or looking for work, according to an RBC report. But a shoddy school plan will affect all parents, and indeed already is. Many, having borne their share of the pandemic’s burden with minimal complaint, are now also playing a part in the safe return, volunteering their time and ideas and help. Parents should become advocates at schools, Dr. Bogoch counseled recently. He’s right in a sense, though the individualist approach can add another layer of inequality: school should not be safer for kids whose parents have the time and money to negotiate and rig better solutions.

Besides, haven’t all parents done enough? If Angry Dad can’t make this work, it hardly seems fair that the responsibility should fall to regular dads and moms. So, instead of picking up tools, maybe it’s time for parents to lay them down, borrowing from those Redstockings in Iceland. We’ve said on social media and in surveys and letters to government and via protests that we want a safe return to school. That means smaller classes and distancing and better ventilation, as experts advise. It means a well-devised, well-communicated plan for cleaning and public-health protocols. It also means clear information for parents on individual school routines.

But our voices aren’t being heard. So maybe it’s time to walk off the job (if we have jobs). Time to stop helping schools reach standards they should be enabled to reach with funding and staff. Time to stop cooking and feeding and caring for our little ones. Time for a Parents’ Day Off. Let someone else take over for a while—why not the children? Folding laundry, doing dishes and taking out the trash may not be the most fun our kids will have, but it won’t be any worse than the realities that await them this fall.