Ottawa

Return to school a 'false choice' for many families

Though decision day may loom for some Ottawa parents, for many, the question of whether to send their kids back to school in September is moot, according to one equality advocate.

For low-income families and essential workers, online learning is out of the question

CAWI's Valerie Stam said the back-to-school plan in Ottawa offers a 'false choice' to parents who lack the flexibility or financial stability to continue overseeing their children's online learning. She said women are disproportionately affected. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Though decision day may loom for some Ottawa parents, for many, the question of whether to send their kids back to school in September is moot, according to one equality advocate.

"They've been given ultimately a false choice," said Valerie Stam, executive director of the City for All Women Initiative (CAWI), a group that champions inclusiveness and gender equity in eastern Ontario. 

Stam said though many families are being told they have the choice between classroom instruction and online learning in September, the hard reality for many is that there's no choice at all.

"For many of them, if they're essential workers they can't tell their employer that they're choosing to keep their kids at home if there's a choice to send them to school," Stam said.

Economy needs a 'she-covery'

Pointing to an RBC study published last month, Stam said single mothers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The bank's research found the employment rate for single mothers is down 12 per cent, while that of single fathers is down seven per cent.

Stam said many women are relying on the return to school to resume full-time work. She said for women working in the gig economy where benefits are scarce, there's no option to continue helping their kids learn from home, especially once federal aid programs dry up.

Stam said the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the need for a widespread economic "she-covery" for women, and this is just one more example.

"There will be no economic recovery without looking through a gendered lens, [or] without a serious discussion of child care and what that means," she said.

While he has reservations about the health risks, Eric Quesnel said his kids will be returning to school in September because the family can no longer continue living off his wife's single income. (submitted)

Families under pressure

For security worker Eric Quesnel, the only factor driving his decision right now is money.

The 37-year old has been at home with his kids, ages nine and six, since schools closed in March. His wife, who works as a property manager, is currently the family's sole source of income.

Quesnel is worried about the health risks his children will face when they return to school, especially if there's a second wave of COVID-19. But he said with the family's finances running on fumes, there's no choice but to send them back.

"We have to keep in mind, whose kids are going to the school? It's not going to be the government worker. It's going to be the food worker, the delivery worker, the security guard — the 'essential workers' that we've been praising since the start of this," he said.

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