As schools prepare to reopen, parents share their hopes and fears

CBC News is following four families as they navigate the return to school in the midst of a global pandemic, tracing how the reopening impacts them before and during the return. First up, getting ready for school.

CBC News will follow 4 families as they navigate returning to classes amidst a global pandemic

Many students will be heading back into classrooms this fall, a decision parents have had to struggle with in the midst of the pandemic. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

From confidence and trust to anxiety and an extended list of outstanding questions, parents across the socio-economic spectrum are confronting the return to school in different ways, but all with an overarching concern about their children's welfare and the well-being of those around them. 

CBC News is following four families as they navigate the return to school in the midst of a global pandemic, tracing how the reopening impacts them before and during the return. 

Each family faces a unique situation based on the age of their children, the school system they attend and the myriad threads of personal impacts from the decisions they make. Some think the government is rushing the reopening without sufficient plans in place, while others think there's no right way to move forward or that it's being handled well. 

As it stands, some have already made their decisions on how their children will learn this year, while some are still struggling to finalize plans and fully understand what the year will bring. 

Adora Nwofor

Adora Nwofor has decided to enroll her two children in online learning through the CBE. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Adora Nwofor has twin teenage girls going into Grade 7 in a public school, but they'll be doing so from home and taking classes through the online hub.

A single mother, comedian, host and Black Lives Matter activist, Nwofor says the bottom line for her is the health of her children and their extended family — some of whom have health issues that put them at risk. 

"I don't understand why it's a must that we go back to the quote-unquote, traditional education in the classroom scheme when we can't live those actual lives," said Nwofor. 

She's concerned about the inability to physically distance in schools and the risk posed by teenagers not necessarily adhering to strict hygiene protocols. 

The decision was not an easy one, however.

Nwofor says she struggled with the balance between her children's need to socialize versus the concerns she has for the health of her children and the children of other families. Her girls, she says, would rather go back to class. 

Nwofor believes the back to school guidelines issued by the government were insufficient. 

"For me? I don't feel like our government, at this point in time, is doing the things that are necessary for me to trust that my children are safe in the school system, as the plans that they have laid out — maybe I'm missing some plans — they seem very sparse."

Nwofor thinks the school board and her children's school is doing the best they can under the circumstances, but she's also concerned about the ability to handle the added pressures of the pandemic, particularly with smaller budgets. 

Nwofor, her parents and the father of her children are pooling money in case they need to hire a tutor or some form of extra help for their children through the chaotic year. 

Nwofor says she's prepared for the coming uncertainty and changes that might come as the year progresses, despite how stressful that could be and how stressful the past year has been. But she says the outpouring of support that came from her work with Black Lives Matter will help see her through for now. 

"Things are going to change. We know that. So, I'm ready. As long as I have this today, I know that it will come back around." 

Keltie Bilkoski

Keltie Bilkoski is sending two children back to school in September, one in junior kindergarten and her oldest in Grade 2, both in the same private school. 

She says she is comfortable with the return to classes at her school, which has detailed plans, bigger classrooms that allow distancing, sanitizing stations outside of every room and sinks within.

"It makes it pretty easy sending them back," she said. 

There was also no option for her children to do online learning through her school. 

Bilkoski says her children were eager to get to school, but she based her decision on the school's detailed plan as well as the advice of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health. 

Keltie Bitkoski says she trusts the advice of Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The school, she says, emphasizes helping others and listening to the best advice that's available to make decisions. 

"I like that my kids are learning that, like, science is right. We believe in science, we believe doctors, and we believe in helping other people."

Bilkoski acknowledges she might be more hesitant if her children were heading into public schools with larger classrooms, but again emphasizes the advice of Hinshaw and says she's not convinced it will be a "complete disaster" as some fear as long as enough people wear their masks, wash their hands and keep their distance.

She believes the government is doing the best it can under the circumstances. 

"I hate the idea of people thinking they can't go back to work because they don't have child care, you know, because I think that disproportionately affects people of lower income. So I think the province is doing the best they can. I think they have to go back."

It's something she and her children are looking forward to as a way to fight the boredom she says they're all feeling at this stage of the pandemic. 

Anna George

Anna George and her family have decided to send the kids back to in-person classes this fall. (Submitted by Anna George)

Anna George has two sons returning to their Calgary Catholic school this year, in Grades 4 and 6.

George and her husband, who is at-risk as a Type-1 diabetic, felt it was important for their kids to return to in-person classes to get the education they need. 

"The thing is, we want our kids to go to school, but we have concerns about whether or not they're going to be staying there," she said. 

George worries there will be a constant revolving door whenever a student gets a runny nose and they'll have to balance the back and forth between home and school while maintaining their children's education.

As the chair of her local school council, George says she's very involved in her children's schooling, and also says she was able to sit down with the principal and was happy with the plans in place. 

"Our only real concern with this health aspect is the way in which they're going to deal with substitute teachers," she said. 

She worries schools will see the same issues that plagued long-term care homes earlier in the pandemic, when staff moved between facilities, bringing infections with them. She also worries about the impact on the mental health of students, both from masks and from not getting the socializing they need with friends. 

She says one of her children has thrived doing school from home, while the other is craving more time with his friends. 

George says they're in a fortunate position and can be flexible. Her husband is working from home in the energy sector after being laid off earlier in the pandemic.

"We have been in the fortunate situation because we're not struggling financially," she said. 

"And so, as everything went down, you know, and my husband got laid off, we were able to look at things perhaps in a different way than maybe some families would have. We started to build memories."

Virginia Wong

Virgina Wong, pictured with her daughter, still hasn't decided what the best option is for returning to classes. (Virginia Wong)

Virginia Wong's daughter attends a large high school and is enrolled in the GATE program, going into Grade 11, but Wong still isn't sure what to do about returning to classes. 

She's unsure about the reopening plans and has more questions than answers.

"I feel how we're doing it is scary and unclear because all the details have not been vetted out," said Wong. 

"In my situation, I kind of feel much of the information that has been disseminated has been more applicable for elementary, junior high kids than for high school students."

Wong has signed up her daughter for CBE's online hub learning, but she is still looking at the back to school option and provincial distance learning. She's concerned that hub offers only the core curriculum and the distance learning is slightly different.

She can withdraw her daughter from online learning prior to Sept 1.

"So then I have to make the decision of how do I set up my child for future success being that they're not behind when they go into the next level," she said. 

"Are they going to get enough support? And is it confusing between online hub learning, in-person or Alberta distance learning?"

Adding to Wong's anxiety is the fact that there are health issues in her home. 

"I realize no decision is risk-free, but I have to weigh poor outcomes of an immuno-compromised family member and fulfilling opportunities for my child to have, for our students to have, academic success."

And like most parents, Wong is keenly aware that her daughter wants to be back in class with her friends.

"They want to talk to someone other than the computer screen or, you know, family members," she said. 

She and her husband, along with a child in university, will all be in the home this fall. 

Wong thinks the government has good intentions when it comes to the reopening, but she wishes it didn't have to be an all-or-nothing approach. She would prefer a more cautious plan that phases in the return.

As she ponders what to do as the deadline for a decision looms, Wong says they're feeling the pandemic roller-coaster, alternating between hope and anxiety. 


  • An earlier version of this story said Adora Nwofor had twin boys, when in fact she has twin girls.
    Aug 27, 2020 1:03 PM MT


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