Stressed parents hopeful for a return to normal as restrictions, hospitalizations subside

Parents in and around two Toronto neighbourhoods are cautiously optimistic that a return to normal is just around the corner, as restrictions throughout Canada begin to lessen and COVID-19 hospitalizations drop.

Toronto neighbourhood communities rallied to support those struggling with work-life-parenting balance

Shameen Akhter is a mother of 3 living in Toronto's Flemingdon Park neighbourhood. She's been a stay-at-home mom throughout the pandemic. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

As pandemic rules continue to loosen across the country and hospitalization rates for COVID-19 continue to drop, Shameen Akhter is cautiously optimistic about the potential for some kind of return to normalcy. 

The mother of three living in the Flemingdon Park neighbourhood in Toronto, has spent the last two years dealing with on and off school closures and has struggled to find a moment where she felt comfortable looking for work. 

"I feel that things are coming back to place slowly and gradually," said Akhter. "I wouldn't say normal, but it's better than before."

Ontario reopened its schools to in-person learning in mid-January, after moving students back to remote learning as the Omicron wave rose to prominence in late 2021.

The province is still requiring school boards to offer virtual learning as an option for one more school year, however. And several provinces and territories have shifted to tracking staff and student absences rather than positive cases.

Like many parents living in Flemingdon Park and the nearby Thorncliffe Park communities, Akhter dealt with cramped living conditions, fluctuating school availability and worsening mental health while trying to keep control of her household.

In September, she tried job hunting after four years as a stay-at-home mom, landing an interview with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). She'd planned to take it virtually, in her one-bedroom apartment. 

However, due to a case of COVID-19 in her younger son's classes, all three of her kids were sent home to self-isolate. 

Akhter recalled the interviewer asking her what would happen if her children were sent home again in the future: Who could be responsible for them, and how would she manage that?

"I was speechless, because I had no answer to that," said Akhter.

While her husband, who works at Pearson Airport, could drive back into the city if necessary, she would likely be the one to pick her kids up. 

Akhter didn't get the job.

"I just decided that it's going to keep happening like this. It's an ongoing situation," she said. 

A TDSB spokesperson told Tapestry, in part: "Our organization is focused on children, so we understand that our employees have family responsibilities. While there are always expectations of staff, we try to be as accommodating as possible." 

Surviving with kids

Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park are among the densest communities in Canada, with the vast majority of families living in decades-old high-rise apartment buildings. Thorncliffe Park is growing too, with most of the growth coming from immigration. 

In Jan. 2021, in the middle of Ontario's third wave, Thorncliffe Park had 654 cases for every 100,000 residents over a two-week period. Flemingdon Park had 588. An adjacent affluent neighborhood, Leaside, only had 143 cases per 100,000 people. 

The mix of low income residents living in tight quarters has caused logistical problems throughout the pandemic. Residents have had trouble receiving mail, elevators became harder to use once capacity was limited to two people, and vaccination rates have lagged, compared to the rest of the city. 

However, problems exist even within households, like when high rise residents attempt to self-isolate following a positive COVID-19 case.

When Thorncliffe Park resident Shaista Khattak's husband tested positive at the start of 2021, he tried to self-isolate in the family's single bedroom. That left Khattak and her three kids in the living room.

But the virus didn't stay in the bedroom, and within a week her two sons caught it. A few days later, she came down with a fever. 

"We thought … we are alone and we're going to die," said Khattak, recalling the painful symptoms and nausea she endured over the following week. "I [took] 60 to 70 tablets, painkillers, in 10 days."

Isolation and community life

Khattak partially attributes their physical and mental wellbeing to relatives, but also local community groups like The Neighbourhood Organization, and a local Whatsapp parenting group chat that delivered medicine and food. 

She thanked one organizer in particular, Shakhlo Sharipova, who also runs the Thorncliffe Park Autism Support Network. Among other campaigns, she runs a summer camp for children with special needs, which Akhter and Khattak's children attended.

Shakhlo Sharipova, third adult from the left, ran this summer camp for kids with developmental disabilities in and around Thorncliffe Park — though the camp was inclusive of all kids. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

Sharipova, however, is not immune from the same issues facing the broader community. When schools first reopened in Sept. 2020, she sent her 20-year-old son, Ayub, to school. Ayub has a severe developmental disability and at home, he could be prone to tantrums, which were hard to manage. Teachers helped mitigate that, providing updates on his mood and what he did each day.

"He was very happy actually going to school. And I am very grateful for his school staff," said Sharipova.

She attributed one silver lining to the pandemic: since it began, the community learned how to mobilize and better address residents' needs.

"I don't know anyone who was just sitting back and just watching. I think every resident from this community was participating in solving some kind of issue," Sharipova said. 

School reopenings

When school shifted to in-person learning in September 2021 — before the Omicron wave pushed all learning home again — Khattak was looking forward to having some time for a walk, to do chores or even go shopping without also keeping an eye on the kids.

Khattak, who is diabetic, also hoped to get back to the gym, which she's missed for the better part of two years.

But even then, not everything went according to plan. Akhter's children were repeatedly sent home throughout the 2021 school year due to COVID, including a school-wide shutdown in November. 

As the kids stayed home, Akhter said she took on greater responsibilities as she was worried her kids weren't paying attention in virtual classes.

"I literally was homeschooling them. I was the teacher. I was the mother. I was everything for them," Akhter said. 

Then the whole family caught COVID-19 in early 2022, right as in-person schooling was delayed two weeks in Ontario. 

A playground near Thorncliffe Park Public School where parents tend to take their kids after class. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

Akhter struggled to keep up her kids' routine, while ill and attempting to self-isolate. Soon the burden became too much, and she confronted her husband about the need to reassess their priorities. 

They made a compromise, that with her husband's seasonal position set to end in April, he would stay at home, while she went back to work. 

As hospitalizations continue to lower, they're also making plans to visit family abroad in Pakistan, who they haven't seen since before the pandemic. 

"I hope that the plan goes through because I just don't want to be disappointed. I would be heartbroken," said Akhter. 

Produced and written by Arman Aghbali.

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