It’s been several weeks since Quebec lifted its mask mandate for schools — just as students returned from spring break — but Katherine Korakakis continues to feel a bit nervous as her daughter Bella sits in class this week without a mask.
Though her 11-year-old agreed to keep one on for two weeks post-break (thinking of how many classmates had travelled) and despite her cautious optimism about easing restrictions, the Montreal parent felt the province’s decision to drop the school mask mandate at that time was yet another frustrating pandemic policy concerning kids.
“Taking the masks away so fast after spring break? That was not putting our children in the best position possible,” said Korakakis, who serves as president of Quebec’s English Parents’ Committee Association.
From debates over masking in schools to students repeatedly bounced between in-person and remote learning, many parents feel Canadian policy makers have let our children down during the pandemic.
In a recent survey conducted between March 1 and 4 of this year, Angus Reid Institute in partnership with CBC News asked 2,550 Canadian adults about how they fared amid COVID-19. (A probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)
Sixty-seven per cent of the parent respondents (those with children under age 18) said policy makers have not given enough consideration to the well-being of children when making decisions during the pandemic. That figure rose even higher — to 72 per cent — for respondents with children specifically aged six to 12 years old.
Beyond the masks situation, other school-related concerns also require prompt attention, Korakakis said, from declines in student mental and physical health to learning gaps that have developed or worsened.
“The pandemic really shed the light on … all the areas that need to be improved and I don’t see a plan in place to address any of those needs.”
With so much of a child’s life revolving around school, it’s not surprising that parents questioned school-related decision-making in the past two years, said Angus Reid Institute president Shachi Kurl, from Vancouver.
“When we think of school not just as a place to learn but as a place for early life development, it’s little wonder that parents — no matter where they’re coming from in terms of their ideological stance on the spectrum or their economic stance or their own educational stance — [felt] frustration around what policy makers are doing.”
Children ‘have not been prioritized’
Part of that parental frustration rests with our polarized landscape. Some parents think mask mandates are a good idea, while others don’t, “so when they’re being dropped, that’s problematic. When they’re being retained, that’s [also] problematic,” said Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor of counselling psychology at the University of Ottawa, chair of the COVID-19 Task Force for the Royal Society of Canada, and Canada Research Chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention.
But she said child advocates like herself have also been “quite frustrated … about how [children] have not been prioritized when decisions have been made about their health and wellness.”
“A lot of times politicians give lip service to saying that they’re going to prioritize children… When we put money toward an issue, we say that we prioritize that issue; we value that it’s an important aspect to address. And that’s not happening. There’s actually cuts happening in these areas instead of added funding.”
Child mental health, for instance, was an issue on the radar even before the pandemic, Vaillancourt said. She wants to see government and school officials think more holistically, funding strategies to ensure students catch up academically from pandemic learning loss, but also prioritizing child and youth mental health.
“I don’t want us to be putting kids in summer school and infusing them with reading, writing and arithmetic curriculum just to make sure that we get them back [to] pre-pandemic standardized scores,” she said.
Vaillancourt also said improving maternal mental health will benefit kids.
“Maternal depression and maternal anxiety — these are not good things for a child,” she said.
“If we are going to have kids be healthy, we also need their families to be healthy… I would like to see us prioritize the wellness of mothers, in particular.”
Parents lean into advocacy
In Surrey, B.C., spring break is coming to an end for Rani Senghera’s nine-year-old sons, Jora and Kesar. British Columbia is dropping its mask mandate in schools after the two-week break and updating other measures in classes as well, but she’s asked the twins to keep wearing masks for now.
“At this time, whatever you’re feeling comfortable with you should do,” said Senghera, who is also the media director for the Surrey District Parent Advisory Council.
During the pandemic, she’s seen parents pay more attention to and speak up more regarding decisions affecting their children, asking questions that shine new light on pre-existing problems and issues in schools.
She said they’re noticing, for instance, “‘these portables don’t have sinks [for hand-washing]. Why don’t they have sinks?'” and “‘Why is the air filter system in the classroom not up to grade? Why isn’t it kept maintained? Why isn’t it at the highest level that it should be?'”
Senghera said she thinks Canadian parents have made a difference by speaking up for their kids in the past two years. Yet she hopes parents will have even better communication with and more consideration from education and government officials deciding school-related policy in the future.
“Parents are way at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to decision-making … when we should be the number 1 people that they ask first, because those are our kids that are in the schools.”
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