Sarmishta: School ended with an especially big sigh of relief this year as kids, parents, and teachers said goodbye and good riddance to schooling amid COVID lockdowns. It hasn’t taken long, though, for parental anxiety to ramp up to the next big question: What happens this fall? Will kids go back full time or will parents be juggling jobs and remote schooling part of the week? How do we square the demands of work with asynchronous learning, as it’s called– kids learning on their own time at home part of the week. Will some parents be forced to leave the workforce? What effect will this have on the economy? And what about that possible second wave of COVID? In the four months since pandemic measures shut down businesses, schools, communities, and the economy, the strain has been felt on multiple fronts.
News Clip: More than half of the job loss is being experienced by women. Women continuously are disproportionately impacted by this. 56% of parents say their children’s mental health has deteriorated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We took on debt so Canadians wouldn’t have to. And the national debt is expected to exceed $1 trillion for the first time in Canadian history.
Sarmishta: The pressure is on to resume work, restart the economy and get kids back on track. And it all hinges on the return to school. Yet, even as governments move to open restaurants and bars and gyms and nail salons, parents remain in the dark on what that will look like. I’m Sarmishta Subramanian sitting in for Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story joining me today is Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a gender, and international health expert and consultant who has been vocal about the return to school. Hi Lauren.
Sarmishta: So every parent I talk to is confused about the fall– what to expect, which scenario will be in place, what it means for their kids, what it means for them and their jobs. Should we be further along at this point than we are?
Lauren: I think every parent understands that as a world and a country, we have been through through a heck of a lot in the last five months. And if we were still on full lock down and being told that, you know, stay home plank that curve, I think parents would understand that there’s no real plan to bring back schools. But that’s not the case. Parents are looking around and seeing, you know, restaurants reopening, bars, nail salons, dog spas. Parents are seeing everything reopening around them, and yet there’s no plan to bring back schools. So it’s not the not bringing back schools per se. It’s the disconnect between what politicians are saying about what should reopen, and what people, employers as well feel is the priority to be reopened.
Sarmishta: So much of Ontario is now in stage three, reopening businesses like bars and restaurants, and allowing larger gatherings. I guess the idea is that this is a vital stage in reopening the economy. But at the same time, it’s summer, there’s no school and childcare centres are still sitting empty or half full. Where are the children meant to go?
Lauren: I think that’s what parents are starting to panic about and have been for a few weeks now. That employers are starting to call staff back to work. Parents have been hanging on by a thread for the last four and a half months. I think we’re all starting to acknowledge to each other how completely unsustainable and incredibly difficult and how our mental health has suffered, how our children’s mental health has suffered, how they have been out of education for– they will have been out to education for six months by September. You know, for my daughter in grade one, six months is a huge percentage of her three formal years, you know, nine months each. She’s been out of school, a fifth of her entire experience of school. So parents are starting to, I think, talk about that. What are you supposed to do with your children? You cannot physically leave them at home, especially for young children. And so between the governments saying, not my problem, employers saying not my problem you don’t have childcare, and some schools saying not our problem your employers are calling you back, parents are stuck in an absolutely impossible situation. Like our children are physical beings. They are humans. We cannot evaporate them or– we have to do something with them. And so what you’ll see is parents dropping out the workforce. We’re already seeing it. And those parents dropping out are women.
Sarmishta: Right. So I want to get to that. I’d like to ask you first, you’ve emerged as a prominent voice in urging governments to make full time school in September the priority. Can you tell us a little bit about why that’s so important?
Lauren: It’s really a no brainer from every aspect. It is both a human right and legal right for children. We have been violating children’s legal rights for six months. If we are going to do that, it should be for the most serious of reasons, which in March, April, May, it definitely was. But now we are violating their rights while we reopening everything else. And we’re just saying it’s not enough of a priority for us to fund it, or it’s too logistically difficult to make it safe. That’s not an acceptable reason to violate children’s rights. Children’s mental health has suffered immensely. Their education is far behind, and this disproportionately impacts low-income, racialized, recent immigrant children. So the children who were already furthest behind, and whose communities have been hardest hit by COVID, their disadvantage is compounded by the fact that they had been out of school. And if schools don’t return fully, you’re just setting them further and further back. And the more you set back children at this stage in their life, the harder that is to undo. And so you’re going to see cohorts of children whose entire life chances have been dramatically altered by the decisions that politicians are making around education. So the children’s rights. Then secondly, there’s parents who have been on an unsustainable juggling between work, lack of work maybe, homeschool, parenting, finances and lack of, isolated and unable to have anybody help with the burden, at their wit’s end. And then you have the economic impact. There is no economic recovery without schools and childcare. You cannot reopen the economy if parents, workers, have no where to send their children. And so it’s a misnomer for politicians to say, “We’re reopening economy, but what does schools have to do with that?” Schools are central to being able to reopen the economy. And then you have the impact on women, who have already disproportionately born the burden of COVID. They were the first to be laid off in greater numbers, because they are the bulk of the service and healthcare sort of cosmetic, beauty, dentistry, face-to-face in engagements are mostly women professions, female professions.
Sarmishta: Right. Services.
Lauren: Yes. So they were laid off first, women were laid off first, and in larger numbers. And then as jobs have returned to work, as employers have called furloughed or laid off staff back, women have returned at half the rate of men. So not only were men not laid off as much, they have now been recalled to work at twice the speed and rate of women. And then for women who were the– for people who were essential workers, ironically enough, they were mostly women as well. Long term care homes, nursing staff, care workers, they are female-dominated professions. So they’ve borne the brunt on that side, and then they’ve also borne the brunt on the home side. We know that any change to home life balance means that women are left carrying the slack. So the emotional labor, the actual labor, the educating the children, the increase in parenting, you know, and there was something, some stats or a study in the New York Times that showed 80% of men think they had done half of this additional new burden. Just 3% of women agreed with them.
Sarmishta: Oh, that’s fantastic. I hadn’t seen that. Wow. That’s so revealing. It’s revealing and supported by lots of anecdotal conversations I have.
Lauren: Yeah. So women are already bearing the brunt of it now, and then if we don’t bring back schools and childcare, it will be women who drop out of the workplace, because families will make the rational, logical calculation for them, each on an individual level, that somebody has to look after the children, because you can’t leave them alone or someone calls child services. And who logically is the person to do that. It is the lower earner, or the part time earner. Plus you compound that with just gender roles about who is expected. You know, so there will be families who, even where the woman is the higher earner, it will be decided that she drops out because the gender role about childcare and who should do childcare actually overrides the financial calculation. And so you will see women, and you are already seeing women dropping out of the workplace. We have seen waves of coverage this week about women who have been forced out because their family can no longer sustain the burden of working and childcare.
Sarmishta: And of course, aside from the fact that this affects services that we all rely on, it affects the economy, I mean, I’ll ask you to talk briefly about that just in terms of numbers, if it’s something we could touch on briefly, but it’s also just the giant leap backwards in terms of gender equality and what that does to just our social fabric, right?
Lauren: Yeah. We know that societies that are more gender equal have better outcomes, people are healthier, they have better access to health care, they are higher educated. They have lower violence levels. We know that gender equality is both a cause and correlation to things that we want our country in society to look like. Good things. If we go back on gender equality, which, this decision not to reopen schools fully has the potential to set back women’s equality by decades. We do not want to be going back to a country that is less equal and less fair and backwards in progress. It has a whole knock-on effect on a whole other sets of indicators of progress as a country. So, yeah, I am really worried that if we don’t open schools fully in September safely, and give them the resources to do that, then our opening for the rest of the year fully. That will be the baseline that we then accept, two days a week is fine. We will never scale up, the chances of scaling up once you have accepted a normal baseline are very slim.
Sarmishta: Well, especially because families are making decisions now and in the coming weeks about what their work picture looks like in September. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until Labour Day to start making those kinds of decisions. I want to talk a little bit about the first point that you made about children’s right to an education, and all of the things that that provides. So a number of child health experts have come out in droves really saying that schools need to reopen, Sick Kids hospital in Toronto, the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics, experts in a lot of places have talked about lack of access to school as a real risk for longer term negative outcomes for this generation. Does part-time school, leaving aside just for a moment the other complications, does part time school address that problem?
Lauren: I mean, part-time school is better than nothing. But if we have one single ambition as a country, it should not be the bare minimum for our children. You know, we talk at lengths about children are our future. Children are our most precious beings. We protect children more than we do adults, rightly. You know, the duty of care or as adults that we owe children is so enormous, and it’s codified in legislation and human rights documents. There is a reason we treat children as special and doing the bare minimum, throwing our hands up in the air and saying, maybe you can have one to two days a week, sure, does not strike me as doing our duty to safeguard children and their rights, as well as them being future adults and future contributors to the economy and future workers and future parents raising their own children. Like we know the impact of intergenerational trauma. And so sure, two days a week is better than nothing, but is that what we owe our children? You know, wealthier families, I’m sure there will be camps that will now spring up, for profit camps that will spring up to offer three days a week childcare. And wealthier parents will be able to pay for that.
Sarmishta: Camps and tutors and all kinds of things that then further drive inequality that is already a problem.
Lauren: Exactly. So the rich will always find a way to get ahead, because they can pay for it. The ones who will suffer are parents who can’t afford additional childcare or are isolated from family, perhaps because they’re immigrants. And so you’re just widening the inequity. And you’re leaving those parents without a solution. And so they will continue to give up work to try and balance the burden. And it still doesn’t keep those kids safe. If those kids are in an abusive home, or they’re being neglected and they don’t have enough food to eat, and this experience for them has been profoundly traumatic and frightening, and they’ve gone hungry, two days a week is not enough to support those children. They need intensive five days a week mental health schooling, caring adults, food, support.
Sarmishta: So schools have reopened in about 20 countries, and not at one or two days a week. In a couple of places like Denmark, they never actually closed. What can we learn from those examples?
Lauren: I mean, I’m not an epidemiologist or an educator, or, you know, I’m somebody who can read research. And I think what we’re seeing is that as far as we know, and from what public health officials in Canada are now saying, with the right resources and with the right commitment and political will, we can safely reopen schools where viral loads are low and community spread is very low. In order to safely do it, we need to make changes to how we operate our schools. And in order to make those changes, essentially school boards or schools need funding. They need additional resources. We need more space to physically spread kids out, and we need more educators of some sorts to be with those children. You know, it’s not rocket science. It is hard. Hard things are hard. That is why politicians are elected, to do hard things. But we now have a wealth of evidence from many other countries about how we do this safely. And we have in Canada, public health officials, infectious disease experts, epidemiologists, and paediatricians, all calling for schools to safely open, and who are willing to provide their expertise and guidance on how to make that happen. So essentially what we’re short of at this point is the political will to prioritize this and to fund it.
Sarmishta: Right. I mean, I find part of what I’m wrestling with as a parent, as a citizen, I understand that there are competing issues here, complex issues. There’s keeping children mentally healthy. There’s nurturing their development. There’s getting parents back to work and, you know, genuinely restarting the economy. And then there’s the question of how to do this without a spike in cases or a second wave. And in some ways those have been set up and discussed within the political sphere as potentially competing interests. But I’ve also now seeing coverage suggesting that countries that have brought down COVID rates effectively are also countries that haven’t had prolonged school closures where kids have not been out of school for four and five and six months.
Lauren: Yeah. I think there’s a huge amount of puzzling, you know, anomalies with this disease across the board. We don’t know why children appear to get it less worse or, you know, we don’t know why people are asymptomatic or not. I do take heart from experts who have studied what we can study so far intensively, that show that overall safely, bringing back schools is less dangerous than not when you compare all of the range of impacts. And, you know, I like the idea that as a society, we get kind of a COVID risk budget. We get a limited number of social-physical interactions as a society before “r,” the reproduction rate of COVID goes above one, which means it starts to accelerate exponentially. So we need to keep “r” below one in order for it to be declining, not accelerating. And so we get a set number of interactions before, as a community, we push that number above one. And so if we have that budget, and it is fixed, how do we spend that budget? What do we prioritize? And not all engagements or physical interactions are created equally. They do not have the same cost to spend. So you can have an extremely high risk activity, like bringing bars back, looks from the US now to be extremely risky, with very little, well essential value. You do not need to go to a bar at all, remotely. Or you can have something that is extremely low risk, like a soccer game outdoors, where you don’t need to play soccer, sure. But the risk is so low, you know, it’s a very cheap spend in your COVID risk budget. If we’re going to have some high risks spends, and let’s say we accept that education, bringing back schools, is definitely a risk and let’s say, you know, done safely, done well with like precautions and you know, the best case gold standard scenario, if we say it’s medium risk it, though, has a high essential value. It is– bringing back schools and daycare is worth the higher risk because it is so essential. Bringing back bars and gyms has a much higher risk and is completely non-essential. So how we spend our COVID risk budget of limited interactions should be prioritized.
Sarmishta: Are there things that you’ve seen, and we now do have the benefit of a few months of research and study and experiments in various places, are there things that you’ve seen in other parts of the country, other parts of the world that have piqued your interest, piqued your curiosity, given you, cause for hope, interesting things that we might consider and discuss at least?
Lauren: Yeah. And I’ve heard, you know, since doing some more public advocacy on this, I’ve heard others with really creative solutions. Yes, they are of effort, and yes they require doing things differently, but I feel like we owe it to our children and to the economy and to women to not just– we’ve tried nothing and nothing works. So things like, we are not short, as a country, of empty space right now. Gyms, theatres, rec centres, church halls, legions, hockey arenas, every community, large and small has empty space that would likely be lent for free or very little cleaning and maintenance costs, sitting empty with groups who would, I think, like to contribute to an effort for the country’s children. We should be requisitioning those spaces. We should be considering, you know, bringing back retired teachers if they want to, and I think teacher safety here is a really important point. And having unions involved in negotiating safety for teachers, particularly those who are in at risk groups is really important. But for supply teachers or retired teachers or teacher trainees, who could be mentored. And then, you know, considering expanding, who do we consider educators? So in some countries they are partnering with local theatre groups, local arts programs, students who run summer camps through universities. So people who are, you know, first aid trained criminal background checked, spend a lot of time educating children, although not in the formal curriculum, having, you know, three days a week formal curriculum for kids and for younger kids, two days a week, art and theatre classes. Or for older kids, two days a week, coding and robot building classes at a local university. Like that would be cool. My child would love that.
Sarmishta: That would be really cool.
Lauren: So we need to expand our horizons and definition of what we consider education, and who we consider educators outside of the formal curriculum. And then having a coordinated body able to do that for say a province in Canada, and so give school boards, then, an indication of we have secured X hundred thousand square feet of empty space. In these 17 locations, we have secured X hundreds or thousands of trained teachers or teacher trainees. And we have secured X number of other educators. This is now your puzzle, here are your resources. And now it is your job to put together a plan to deploy those in the best, most logistical way as trained educators. And so you’re giving them the pieces of the puzzle they need, rather than forcing them to go and cobble it together on an ad hoc way with no training and no resources. And then you’re giving them the additional– here’s the additional funding we will kick in to fund your plan so that we, you know, for PPE, for extra cleaning, for dividers in classrooms, for whatever it takes, we will fund your plan.
Sarmishta: Well, it’s interesting because some of the scenarios that you’re describing and the approaches that you’re describing, they mitigate the risks from COVID, but they also represent a really interesting opportunity to reconfigure education in ways that serve kids and all sorts of other ways too. I mean, yes, it’s a way of running schools that minimizes risk of transmission. But as you said, expanding the definition of education, I mean, expanding the definition of school space. One of the first things that occurred to me when we started thinking about return to school and saving our sanity collectively, was more time spent outdoors. And I realized this is Canada and we have a long winter, but if Finland can do it. And they have those, you know, quite extended outdoor school programs, is that something we can be talking about? There’s an opportunity here as much as there is risk.
Lauren: Yeah. And as somebody who does social change for a living, you know, every cloud has a silver lining or, you know, no good crisis goes without an opportunity. There is a really interesting opportunity, if you were thoughtful and ambitious and had, you know, creativity, to reimagine some of the problems that we already know exist in our education system. It’s underfunded. But you know, for a lot of kids, particularly kids with special needs, they struggle to sit in a classroom for eight hours a day, and they struggle with some of the formal elements of learning. And like, my daughter’s school has like a two hour Forest Friday, where the kids go into the forest, and they learn about Indigenous respect for nature, they have a Sage ceremony and then they go out and they do five minutes nature meditation in the forest. And she does not go to like, a sort of a hippie private art school. She goes to a regular school board school, and she loves it. It is so much–
Sarmishta: Oh, how lovely!
Lauren: Like so much value, just as much as maths and arithmetic and literacy. And so if teachers are already wanting to do that level of creativity and that level of like education that’s not worksheets and writing lines, why don’t we encourage that and embrace it? I think teachers have long wanted to deliver that type of education. And I think drawing on that type of creativity that’s already happening in pockets would benefit our children so much.
Sarmishta: It’s hard to think that things could actually get worse. But if we don’t sort this in the next– in the coming weeks and months, is there a possibility that it could actually be harder in the fall than it was in the spring?
Lauren: I can see a scenario where schools don’t reopen. Because we have chosen to spend our precious social engagements on things like bars and restaurants and gyms now, we create a scenario in six weeks where schools cannot safely reopen. And that for me would just be absolutely unacceptable that we had a runway to do this right, and we had all the solutions on the experts and the level of community COVID spread low enough to make it safe with additional resources. And we just wasted that on bars and restaurants. I will be furious.
Sarmishta: Well, those are, that’s a powerful sentiment on which to end a really interesting and thought provoking conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Lauren: No worries. Thank you very much for having me.
Sarmishta: Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a gender and international health expert and consultant. And that was The Big Story. For more from us, you can visit our website, thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. And now you can write to us to let us know what you think, or even suggest an episode topic. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Sarmishta Subramanian, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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