Parents are teachers, 3 kids in school: London family has plenty at stake when school returns

All five members of this London family will be back in a public school classroom on September 8, and that has them worried about elements of the province's back to school plan.

Members of the McKenzie/Brownridge family are keen to get back but nervous about the province's plan

The McKenzie/Brownridge family has a lot to consider when it comes to evaluating the province's back to school plan. Both parents, Brian and Erica, are teachers. Isaac, 16, is returning to high school while his younger sisters Isla and Aoife are headed back to elementary school. (Submitted by Brian McKenzie)

When school resumes in September, putting students and teachers back into classrooms for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak, each member of the McKenzie/Brownridge family will have something at stake. 

Both parents in the family are teachers. 

Erica Brownridge teaches at John P. Robarts public school. Her husband, Brian McKenzie, teaches at College Avenue Secondary School in Woodstock. 

All three children are in the public school system. 

Isla, who is nine, is going into Grade 4. Her sister Aoife is two years older and getting ready for Grade 7. The family's oldest child, Isaac, is 16 years old and entering Grade 11.

Add it all up and by the end of school's first week, the family will collectively have spent a few hundred hours inside a handful of different classrooms and been in close proximity with scores of new people after strictly physical distancing for months.

'Nervous' about going back

Brownridge is the first to admit it all makes her more than a little uneasy. 

"I'm nervous about going back," she said. "I'm trying not to worry and trying to be ready to take it as it comes, but finding comfort in all this is going to be hard."

As Sept. 8 marches closer, her thoughts dart from one set of questions and challenges to another: Is it safe for her two youngest kids to be in a classroom with more than 25 others? Will they be able to wear masks all day? What if she gets sick? How can she protect her mother-in-law from infection?

"It's all very scary," said Brownridge. 

Another wrinkle is that this year Brownridge begins a new role as a learning support teacher. It's a change she wanted but it means instead of exposure to the same group of students all day long, she's dealing with multiple students in different classes along with a handful of different parents and staff members. 

"I just don't fully know what to expect from this," she said. 

High school: 140-minute long classes

As a high-school teacher, Erica's husband Brian McKenzie has a different set of concerns. 

Secondary students will take two classes per "quadmester," in cohorts of about 15 students attending class and learning from home on alternating days. Teachers will teach a single class and a cohort will be assigned to them.

But squeezing the semester together means instead of classes 75 minutes in length, students will have to sit for 140 minutes. 

"I felt that class times were too long before," said McKenzie.

Students won't be able to leave school property at lunch and will instead have to eat at their desks.

Never a fan of teaching full classes from a podium, McKenzie will also no longer be able to meet with students at their desks for one-on-one teaching.

While some wonder whether kids as young as Grade 4 will be able keep their masks on, McKenzie worries that high-school students might pose a bigger problem for behaviours that pose a high risk of infection. 

"It's a huge issue," he said. "A lot of teenagers, they think they're gonna live forever. A lot of them don't fear getting COVID or worry about who they might give it to."

Getting them to stop wrestling, hand-holding or even kissing won't be easy, he said.

McKenzie is happy that at the high-school level the student body will be split into two cohorts alternating between at-home and in-class learning. 

It's something he and Erica would have liked to see at the elementary level, but the province opted against it

As for his teenager, the family decided it best for Issac to stay home and learn online full-time. 

"I know he'll work and maintain his marks," said McKenzie. 

Both McKenzie and Brownridge say despite facing a flood of worries, they've missed the classroom and do feel a strong pull to return to a job they love.

The back-and-forth announcements about the comeback plan, with information coming out in dribs and drabs, has been frustrating, but they also understand the province and school boards are facing a massive challenge in a system that was under strain before COVID-19 hit. 

"There is no perfect system," said McKenzie. "Everyone is going to do their best to make the plan work as best we can."