P.E.I's back to school plan does not sit well with me

The lifting of strict COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in the last week brought relief to many but a significant increase in concern for some.

Unintended consequences for the few — it’s nothing new

School buses, parked for most of January, started carrying students back to school this week. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

This is a First Person column by Jeff Matheson, the father of a child with complex needs based in Prince Edward Island. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

The lifting of strict COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in the last week brought relief to many but a significant increase in concern for some.

I was very surprised to see school push forward on a path to reopening before the Omicron wave has peaked. The announcement was made at a briefing where recent weeks were described as the worst of the pandemic for P.E.I — with the worst yet to come.

As the father of a high-risk, vulnerable child with complex needs I am deeply concerned; especially when the P.E.I. Teachers' Federation has publicly expressed multiple concerns with the return to school plan.

Schools are opening with many students not yet having received their second doses of COVID-19 vaccine, or before those second doses have had time to develop maximum protection.

Pressure on health care is pressure on us

We are told school is the best place for our children and on one hand that is true.

The return to classrooms will help in some significant ways. School is a place for learning, sharing, friendship, sport, support and more. But it is also an impressive and efficient incubator for COVID-19.

This may not concern you, if you and your child are considered normal and healthy. For others this could be devastating, and not just because COVID-19 is brought into their home.

The health-care system is preparing to navigate a rise in infections, hospitalizations and death. Some regular services have already been cut back.

To the healthy that don't rely often on the health-care system this may seem like a fair trade. To others, those with health issues that require regular medical care, these types of impacts further heighten the daily stressors and risk to their quality of life, as well as to their actual life.

Reassuring or insensitive?

I have heard the arguments in favour of opening.

"The virus isn't a threat," or, "It's only really dangerous to old and vulnerable people."

Perhaps these comments are meant to be reassuring, but they can also be insensitive and hurtful, as if the old or vulnerable simply aren't deserving of the rest us trying a little harder, for a little longer, to do our part and keep as many people as safe as possible until the threat of this current wave passes.

We have to acknowledge these statements for what they are: dehumanizing.

Jeff Matheson is a father of a vulnerable child with complex needs. (Submitted by Jeff Matheson)

"They should just stay home if they are so afraid." If only it were that simple.

Our medically complex children are expected to be in class on the day the restrictions are lifted. The option being offered is to apply to learn from home for the rest of the school year. The system will allow students that are isolating to learn from home, but the plan hasn't built in any accommodations for high-risk students to do the same. 

A blind eye to difficult realities

Using these kinds of knee jerk attitudes and responses to apply political pressure, to justify desire for changes for the many, is the easy way out of our collective struggles.

We are going back to turning a blind eye to the very difficult realities and needs of some, while focusing on the easier-to-accommodate needs of the many.

I have spent the entirety of the pandemic following the public health measures and restrictions to the letter. This is in part to protect myself and my high-risk loved ones, but also because I have seen the struggle of others in our community; while walking a mile in some of their shoes.

This may sound cliché, or like virtue signaling (another favorite saying that people like to throw around during these times), but I can say that I have truly followed the measures for others as much as for my own interests.

The old normal was not for everyone

Some people's lives can be more challenging on a good day than most, and this so-called mild virus can easily make things so much worse.

This is the struggle of the medically complex. It is a struggle we had to navigate before the pandemic and will continue to navigate after it.

The old normal was never designed for everybody. By design it ensured some lives were more difficult for the benefit of others, with a serving of sympathy on tap for the rest. Empathy is typically in short supply.

When we walk up the stairs of our favourite restaurant, which may not have wheelchair access, to gather maskless with our friends, we should recognize the societal challenges impeding others from enjoying the same quality of life.

A difficult decision

For our household, as with many others on the Island, the easing of restrictions means we were faced with a difficult decision:

Do we send our vulnerable child back to school on day one; while the Omicron wave peaks, or do we keep them home until next school year because the reopening plan wasn't designed to allow room for a cautious approach.

I'm not surprised to be put in this situation. The world is designed for the many, where most complex situations and persons are an afterthought, or left out of the picture.

It does not increase my confidence in the reopening plan that some obvious details were missed. Our school sent home an adult-sized mask for our child to wear. A mask that obviously won't fit offers no protection.

As the restrictions ease we should all take a hard look into the mirror and realize that our own comfort, at times, does come at the expense of others' discomfort.

Cautious optimism

I know everybody is doing their best and I'm appreciative of that, but there are always going to be times where the best isn't quite good enough.

Personally, I will continue to approach easing of restrictions and the march toward the "new normal" with cautious optimism and a side of significant worry and uncertainty.

If you disagree and can't see where I'm coming from; that's OK. I'm still happy for you, but you should really try walking a mile in our shoes.


Jeff Matheson is a father of a vulnerable child with complex needs.


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