Story and photo by Marlene Wandel

Here we go again. We are beyond done with this pandemic, but it, apparently, is not done with us. Despite all we have learned, and all the vaccines given, we are once again standing on the brink of a school year with trepidation and uncertainty. Last September, we were sitting ducks with nothing in our arsenal. This year, despite the vaccine, we are still sitting ducks; the decision makers that control a significant aspect of our kids’ lives live 1,600 kilometres from here, and the one-size-fits-nobody school closures across the province last school year are not easily forgotten.

We have reason to hope for a different school year. Although the under-12 crowd is not yet vaccine eligible, nearly everyone in grade 7 and up—and most importantly, school staff—could return to school fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Strangely, that’s not part of the conversation. Some Canadian universities are starting to establish vaccine requirements to be physically present on campus, but vaccines were not even mentioned in the initial Ontario back-to-school plan, and are certainly not required.

It’s puzzling, and mildly infuriating. Our situation is vastly different from last year, but the language is the same: masks, distance, cohorts, testing, ventilation; nothing about vaccines for older students and staff. Why was the one tool that has shown to prevent severe illness even with the spread of the Delta variant not included? Who are we appeasing? In keeping with Ontario government announcements, the story changed a few days later, and vaccine status is a key part of keeping kids in school in the context of COVID exposure. This belated glimmer of common sense, reminiscent of the playground closure debacle, fits the established pattern: grand pronouncements with amendments after the almost inevitable backlash. It doesn’t inspire confidence, and confidence in a commitment to our youth is what many parents have been missing.

Hesitance to engage about vaccines and their role in a safe and sustainable return to school is a slap in the face for the many families who struggled to juggle working and schooling from home this past year. That the risk of being exposed to COVID was the only risk under consideration for young people was frustrating, especially in communities with low case numbers. Businesses opened before schools, and we can go have an indoor drink without a mask on. Is money the only metric of concern? What about all the consequences of extended and repeated school closures?

Many of us watched our kids slide down the slippery slope into the rabbit hole of screen time as a new normal. I cling to the hope that come September, they will be out of the house, among people, for hours and hours every day, and not huddled in their rooms staring at a screen as their portal to school.

There’s a strange tinge of unease, with a sprinkle of shame, that as a parent, I consider access to school and friends a vital part of my kids’ well-being. We could, in theory, take control of the uncertainty by committing to homeschooling, but for many of us with irksome things like jobs getting in the way, it’s not realistic, and it is questionable whether it would contribute to anyone’s well-being. The occasional virtue-signaling letter to newspapers or online commentary from ecstatic grandparents about how their grandkids are thriving outside of school with all manner of learning and joy doesn’t help.

It does bring the problem into focus: for many of us, our social and work lives are structured around the previously predictable access to friends and educators. Struggling to adapt to the loss of all the things that school means to families, not the least of which is routine, isn’t failure, and a reality that many of us fear will return despite assurances that schools will stay open this year.

The machinations of the past 18 months have been a challenge for many families, and I can’t help but think it’s been hardest on the educators. Classroom teachers have been pivoting back and forth to the point of dizziness, like a game of Twister with a maniac operating the spinner. Many students benefited from teachers putting in heroic hours and efforts, but the unpredictability left some unable to give the 150% that it seemed to take to deliver something akin to an education. I was gobsmacked by the art supplies delivered to our door, but I didn’t expect it, and I really hope it never has to happen again.

We’ve all learned to stop expecting anything. I would like to hope. This year I hope that we return to reason and logic, manage schools based on local situations, and use the tools we have. This year, I hope schools stay open longer than bars. We will unearth the lunch bags, organize the mask supply, and consider buying gym shoes. I can’t wait to put this year’s school pictures on the fridge, right next to the vaccine receipts.