British Columbia·Point of View

Families face tough decisions as return to school risks bursting social bubbles

Does sending kids back to class mean our hard-won time with grandparents and a small circle of friends will come to an end? And for the families that can choose online classes, how will their circle of friends — some of whom may have kids that do attend class — be affected?

There's no right answer when it comes to in-school or at-home learning and consequences either may have

In-class learning will mean more contact among kids — and some are worried how that will change things for their families. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.


There has been so much anxiety, frustration and confusion surrounding the question of whether or not to send kids back to school this past week. I feel like an exam in advanced algebra would have been easier. 

On the one hand, I feel my kids desperately need to be with their peers and experience more than their frazzled parents in their daily lives. But, frazzle or not, at least I can control what my children are exposed to when they are safely inside my house.

One big issue has been the thought of suddenly thrusting them into a setting where they are interacting with more people in a single day than they've seen in the past seven months in total. Does this mean our hard-won time with grandparents and a small circle of personal friends will come to an end?

And for the families that can choose to have their children attend online classes, how will their circle of friends — some of whom may have kids that do attend class — be affected?

'A real fear of this virus'

If nothing else, COVID-19 has shown us just how big of an impact everyone has on the greater community. 

Shaun Schmidt and Sherri Adams Schmidt have decided to keep their two daughters out of class. Previously, they'd spent years sailing around the world, so the girls are both used to online learning.

But since they left the water and returned to the Lower Mainland, both kids have formed a close bond with another pair of sisters. And since those girls are going back to school, the hard choice to limit exposure has been made. 

"When [their friends] go back to school ... our visits will now be outside and separated," Schmidt says. "We'll go to that because their bubble will get significantly larger."

But Schmidt and Adams Schmidt are both aware of the impact this will have on their two daughters. It's a source of anxiety on top of their COVID concerns. 

"I want them to see people, I want them to socialize," says Adams Schmidt. "But the fear ... and I think sometimes I'm paranoid, but it is a real fear of this virus."

We've also seen a lot of split families struggle since the start of the pandemic. 

With custody arrangements having to change and co-parents dealing with conflicting levels of comfort and exposure, it can make an already challenging dynamic even more difficult. 

Cynthia Farnsworth's two teens have made the choice to go back to school, but that means time with their dad — who needs to keep his bubble extremely small due to health concerns — could change.

"If it does start to feel kind of sketchy, if there are cases in the classroom ... then I think he probably will shut it down and say 'you're not coming over for now,'" Farnsworth says. 

'There are many risks out there in the world'

Kids going back in class, even with reduced attendance and cohorts established at schools, will suddenly be in contact with many people, and at risk to whatever those people may have unknowingly come into contact with. 

Sonja Latifpour, a child psychotherapist, says parents can help kids realize that while there are risks, that's frequently part of life and can be managed. 

"There are many risks out there in the world, and we have always managed to deal with it," says Latifpour.

For many families, these past few months of being able to see more loved ones have been a welcome relief from the early isolation and fear of the pandemic. The ripple effect that back-to-school will have on some relationships, as well as our mental health, is something we can only guess at right now.

There's no right answer when it comes to in-school or at-home learning — there are benefits and risks for every possible scenario. It depends on what feels best for each family. 

The new school year will require an enormous amount of trust — in our schools, in our kids and in other families — to make it a success. Hopefully, while it might burst our bubbles, it won't break our spirits. 

About the Author

Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.

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