Jordan: Today marks the end of the first or second week of school in many parts of Canada, though, there are about a million caveats to that announcement. Many high schools won’t even start until at least next week. In some school boards, students are returning in staggered fashion day by day. In others plans are literally being finalized the nights before class is to start. It’s kind of a mess. And across the country, a lot of students are having very different returns to school. And then there are the kids who aren’t returning at all. And there are also a million things we don’t know about them. Will they be learning online? Will that work? Will they be homeschooled? Will they be cared for by relatives? How far are parents who do have the means prepared to go to keep their children safe and well-taught during this pandemic? And if enough parents opt for other kinds of learning, what does that do to the school system? What does that do to the images these parents have of themselves? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Matt Gurney is a columnist and an editor with the National Post. He also writes a weekly newsletter called Code 47, which you can find at mattgurney.substack.com. Hey Matt.
Matt: Hey, good to be here.
Jordan: Thank you for joining us. Why don’t you start by kind of giving us the lay of the land. As schools reopened this week in many places, what kinds of choices are a lot of parents making?
Matt: You know, that’s an interesting question. And it’s one we’re living. You’ve probably heard the old expression, you’re burning the candle at both ends. I have a preferred version, which is I’m getting kicked on both sides of my butt at the same time. I have young kids, school aged kids, and I also have a wife who’s an elementary school teacher. And because, in the greater Toronto area, the return to schools being staggered, my wife is back to work before my time kids are in school. So this is relevant to our conversation, and it’s also relevant for you and your listeners to know if you hear two kids fighting in the background, that’s why. I’m solo Dadding this week, cause my wife has already gone back to work. But it is basically that. In the Toronto District School Board, where my kids go to school, they delayed the return to school by a week. So it would normally have been earlier this week. In fact, it’s going to be early next week. And even then they’re bringing the grades back, not exactly day at a time, it’s not quite that simple. But everyday next week they are bringing back a different collection of grades, and they’re filling up the classrooms. All of this to my understanding is because parents, teachers, school administrators, they need time to adapt to the new normal. So they’d rather do it in small pieces, than all at once. And in terms of how families are reacting, I guess, to a certain extent, I mean, we’re getting some reports of how it’s going on in other parts of the country, or even other parts of Ontario. But here in the GTA, the only answer I can give you is an exasperated shrug. Like we’re going to find out, and we’ll probably start to find out in a couple of weeks, how well it’s gone. By the numbers though it looks like a clear majority of students are returning to the classroom. But there is a significant number of kids who are not returning. I’ve seen figures first for specific schools as low as 15%, but I’ve also seen some board wide figures suggesting as many as a quarter of school aged kids are not coming back to the classroom.
Jordan: And there are a few reasons that that might happen. And one of them, of course, is that in lower income places it’s not safe to send the kids back to school. They’re living with their grandmothers. And I’ve seen stories about elevators that can take an hour to get the kids down and off to school. And so in that case, it’s a matter of inequality. But I wanted to talk to you about the anecdotal stuff that’s going around about, you know, the parents who are taking their kids out of school and doing it on their own.
Matt: I mean, it is anecdotal. For me, it’s family as well. And I’m not here to reveal too much of my family business, but my sister, God bless her, she is not currently working. Her job, you know, she was gainfully employed right up to the day the lockdown was imposed. Her job was one of those ones, she had the bad luck of being someone who’s– but not only her job, but also her almost the entire industry has been destroyed by COVID-19. She’s at home. She doesn’t know what the future is going to bring. She has decided for the time that my young niece will be at home and can be doing the online learning that’s offered because she– my sister, I should say– is able to do that right now. You’ve mentioned low income families who are in areas where they’re not able to be doing online schooling, and the elevator issue is a great one, that a lot of us who don’t live in high rises probably hadn’t even thought of. But there are other considerations, too. Lower income families are probably less able than others to be able to go, you know what? We’re not sending our kids back to school. There’s a lot of families right now who for a lot of different overlapping reasons, which include finances, geography, family situation, health reasons, including whether or not anyone in the family is immunocompromised and therefore more cautious around COVID. This is a tough one. We are all having to make decisions for ourselves for our own personal family interest. And I’m not sure there is sort of an overwhelming meta-narrative that explains all of this. It really is an example of every family for itself.
Jordan: And for the families that do have the means, and these are the stories that I’ve seen circulating on social media that frankly piss a lot of people off. Can you kind of describe the private pod idea?
Matt: Yeah. I mean, look, I mean, let’s talk about it as a spectrum. So on one end of the spectrum, we have what a lot of families are doing. And like I said, based on the numbers, what a majority of families these are doing, which is that the kids are going back to school. School’s different. It’s going to be weird, but that’s where they’re going. So that’s the majority of families. There’s a smaller number, but still substantial numbers, that are keeping the kids at home. But they are receiving online learning via the publicly funded school boards, and that’s my niece, whom I’ve mentioned. But then there is also that third category you just alluded to there, which is specific families who either have the financial means or they have the personal circumstances– often those two are one in the same, but not always– who just say, you know what, we’re not sending our kids back to school, but we are going to use private resources, whether that’s money or just the time of one of the parents, to say, our two kids and the neighbours two kids and the kid across the street, and we’re doing school in the living room. And you know, these three families are gonna combine them their money, and they’re going to hire a tutor who can do it online or can do it in person. It obviously varies. But basically it is, I guess we could call it almost a 21st century spin on homeschooling. It’s not that old idea of, you know, dad goes to work and mom, you know, raises the kids at home and gives them their schooling. But it’s something almost kind of a modern twist on that, where people are using private resources, whether it’s money or time, to provide a private education, either for their child or children, or a very small group of children, with the obvious advantages in this era of COVID that if there is no break in a school, it’s not going to impact your, your learning pod. So long as, of course, you are otherwise cautious and you’re not out and about in public, and stuff like that. It gives people the ability, if they’re so able, to have some kind of schooling for their children, also to have some kind of child care for their children so mom and dad can focus on their jobs, while also providing maximum realistic protection against the danger of COVID.
Jordan: By and large what kinds of families are doing this?
Matt: I only know what I’ve read. I would say it comes down to, like I said, I’ve tried to draw a distinction between these two things, but it’s families that either have a lot of money or have the ability through their life circumstances to have a parent at home or a very tight community. So there’s a couple of different groups here. I know it’s very easy to go, oh, it all comes down to money. And I’m sure in a lot of cases, it is exactly that. But anecdotally, I have heard of situations where you can have a learning pod in a multigenerational family that might not actually be per se, particularly wealthy if you look at they’re their household income. But maybe grandma lives with them and grandma’s a recently retired elementary school teacher. She’s going to pod those kids at home. So it’s not as simple as saying, this is just about the wealthy. But probably as a short hand, we could, yeah, I would say it’d be fair to say that the people who can do this are the people who can afford to.
Jordan: Where does that leave the parents who are deciding to bubble in these pods because they can, whether because of money or time, do that? And you know, it’s obviously a privilege to be able to do it, but are they thinking about what it’s costing the school system or even what it’s costing their kids and other kids?
Matt: That’s interesting question. I can’t speak to whether or not they’re thinking about it. They’re certainly doing it. Whether or not it’s something they’re reflecting on, you’d have to ask them. For what it’s worth, and I just put this out there purely as personal disclosure, my wife and I did discuss all these options. We did discuss what is the right thing to do for our kids. And we decided until we get a sense of what the public health situation is going to look like this fall, that we felt our kids being back in their public school was the best thing for them. We did have other options. We could have done online learning. I work from home. It would be a nightmare for me in terms of stress, to do my job and monitor their online learning. But it was possible. It was an option we considered. We considered a private school. We did consider a learning pod. We looked into all these things. And I gotta be honest with you, when we were having these conversations, like you asked what are parents thinking about who were doing the learning pods? I’m just being very blunt with you here, respectfully so, but just being very direct, the impact on society was not relevant to our decision. We made the decision based on the needs of myself, my wife, and my children. The impact on society, I’m not gonna say it didn’t occur to us, but it was not a factor in our decision. I can’t speak for other people who have thought about this. I can’t certainly speak for the people who chose differently than we did. But the decision we made was about our kids. It was not about society and culture at large.
Jordan: This is where the topic of your newsletter comes into play, which is sort of thinking about the idea that of course privileged people are making privileged decisions, because that’s the point of it. And I will confess personally to you, it’s not the same as public school. My young daughter was in daycare and we are doing a bubble with a neighbouring family, who, you know, the two kids were in daycare together, rather than send them back to a 24 kid daycare, we kept them out and hired a half day ECE person to teach them for a little while. And it was a decision I was conflicted about, just because I want my daughter to have the experience of having a large class and kids from all over and et cetera, et cetera. But on the other hand, I want my daughter to be able to see her grandmother without fretting about God knows what she’s bringing home. And so, yeah, I thought about the larger picture of it for about two minutes and then did what was best for my kid, you know? And I recognized as I was doing that, that that was exercising privilege.
Matt: Well, it’s interesting because I wrote, and you’ve referenced my newsletter and thanks for plugging that by the way, I do appreciate that. But I wrote an essay in my newsletter last week about this very issue. Because the Globe and Mail recently ran a terrific feature and it was about all the stuff we’re talking about, kind of what the school return is gonna look like this fall and specifically the issues of parents who have more privilege, mainly money, sometimes family circumstances, their advantages here. And they were talking about the question you would ask how they’re feeling about that. And I had politely rolled my eyes a little bit of this, right? Because this is one of those things where, as I said in the newsletter, it’s easy to be progressive on issues where you’re progressivism doesn’t really cost you anything. And this is an issue where being progressive has a real cost and it can have the cost of, depending on your family, a health situation, like for instance, you’re talking about, you’re worried about your kid’s grandmother. Absolutely. My wife’s mother she’s in good health overall, but she is older. She is in the risk range of COVID, and she has had some chronic lung problems. So you bet I’m worried about that. Other families are in different circumstances. A woman we know is quite young and has recently survived, thank God a bout with cancer. But her immune system is still a mess because of the chemotherapy. She’s not sending her kids to school this year. So we have all these conversations. The Globe article had talked about other issues like Black Lives Matter protests and activism. They had talked about things like climate change. These are good things that for the individual, the progressive individual, most of the time, your investment is very low and the risk to you is very low. And even as I said, there’s offsetting advantages in many ways of being seen overtly and publicly to be on the right side of these progressive issues. So whatever sacrifice taking a day off to go to a march for Black Lives Matter, or the climate strike that we had in downtown Toronto last year. Okay, so there’s a bit of an imposition on your life to go do these things, but there’s offsetting benefits. You get to tweet pictures of yourself at the march. So it’s a bit of a wash here. This is a much more visceral issue. We are talking about the literal health and safety of families. We’re also certainly talking about the economic safety of families, whether or not mom and dad can afford to return to work without school. And I just think this is one of those great where the rubber meets the road issues. Wow. It turns out people who are normally nominally identifying themselves as being left leaning progressive types are making decisions that are in their own self-interest. No kidding. It’s very easy to be on the right side of the issues that don’t cost you anything. It’s a lot harder to be on the right side of the issues where you’re putting your children, your mother-in-law, or your family’s financial security in danger.
Jordan: And that’s why I wanted to talk to you about this, because I saw myself in your essay, and if we wanted to, and we should, give a shout out to Dakshana Bascaramurty and Caroline Alfonso, who did that piece for the Globe that sort of provided the impetus for this discussion. But what caught my brain about your piece was the idea of how quickly our self image can go out the window when we’re reduced to, you know, Mama Bear or Papa Bear. And it kind of puts the lie to a lot of the stuff we tell ourselves when things are good.
Matt: It really does. But I also think you’ve actually maybe put your finger on something there that is actually essential to this conversation that I don’t even know if you realized it when you did it, cause you said self image. I think this speaks more to the self image we have of ourselves than it necessarily does any objective reality. I’m going to posit something to you here, and it’s something I mentioned in my newsletter. I think many people might have the self image of themselves as being very progressive on all these issues. But they’re also, if their parents, hard wired genetically to put their kids first. And I think if you are someone who had an understanding where, a sense of yourself as someone who’s kind of, your leading identity was that you’re progressive, that you’re a good Lefty on all these issues, you might be struggling with this. If you’re someone who is not politically engaged, not ideologically aware, doesn’t think a lot about these issues and is very centred in your identity as a parent, I don’t think you thought about this at all. It probably never even occurred to you. I think the world I live in is such that I am aware of the cultural and social issues, because I write about them or I talk about them. So I’m aware of these issues. But if you would put to me, even before this, in the abstract, what matters more to you? Like the wellbeing of your family or progress in society? I would not have had any qualms about going well, the wellbeing of my family. It’s harder for other people whose self identity is more invested in ideological or political ends. So I think this is just one of those other examples of where in many other ways, the costs of COVID and the sacrifices of COVID are lending very unequally on different people. A lot of people out there did not think twice before pulling their kids out of the schools. For others, it’s been a real struggle.
Jordan: And I think I’ll note here, that I’ve had two kinds of conversations about the idea of learning pods and pulling kids out of either daycare or school. And they divide very equally between conversations I have publicly on social media and conversations I have with other parents between us.
Matt: Yup, no, absolutely. And forgive me for interrupting you there, but I’m going to guess that what I just said there about self image and public image is gonna be the dividing line there, right? People might talk very openly among fellow parents, among friends, among brothers and sisters, but they might talk very bluntly and clearly about the first job being that of the parent. Whereas they might feel more of an obligation to performatively fret about that on social media.
Jordan: Yeah. I mean, I think that is the dividing line and I think it does reduce us to kind of our cleanest selves. Cause you know, again on my mother, who I want to be able to see her grandchild, is one of the most progressive people that I have ever met. But if I told her that we can either send her grandchild to daycare and she can’t see her, or we can take her out of the system and you can actually play with her, like, I know which one she would choose. She wouldn’t post about it on Facebook, but I know which one she’d choose.
Matt: I think that– and I mean, I don’t know how much time you have for me today. We might need to start doing seven or eight other podcasts to capture all this material here. But this really is, like I said before, this is a where the rubber meets the road moment. And I said in my newsletter, it’s a more primal issue, right? Cause the safety of your children is something genetic, it’s hardwired into you. All of the scariest moments in my life have been when I had reasons to fear for the safety of my children. I don’t think I’m unusual in that as a parent. I did mention there are some other issues, right? Like we’ve already talked about climate change being an issue, right? Everybody knows what the right view to have on climate change. Everybody knows what the right thing to say publicly is. Many of the people saying that probably have carbon footprints that are well above the median. I mentioned another example of homelessness being an issue, right? Everybody wants to solve homelessness. Everybody wants more money being spent on social services. Everybody thinks the shelter system needs more beds, more staff, more capacity. And the moment you put a shelter in your neighbourhood, everybody’s opposing it. Because that’s someone else’s problem to solve. This is not exactly a NIMBY issue. But I think it is revealing the same kind of emotional and ideological tensions, where all of us want a really, really good education system. All of us want that great equalizer. None of us want our kids or our moms or our mothers-in-law to be the ones who are in the literal danger of death in order to make that possible here. That is why COVID, you said the so perfectly, COVID really has revealed our true selves here. But the thing that I find fascinating is that some of us, by either law experience or just our personal human nature, never really were harbouring any doubts about that. I have found it more interesting personally to see the people who have struggled to admit this about themselves. And I will say this cheerlessly, I’m not saying this in any way as a criticism, but I just find it really interesting that people who have genuinely been like, oh wow, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I don’t know if you’re one of those people, like you’ve said you thought about it for two minutes. I don’t know how emotionally taxing those two minutes were for you here, but I would be genuinely interested to talk to someone who has really struggled with this decision, because it would be fascinating to kind of know when they looked in the mirror and had that struggle, what was going on in their head? For me, it was never hard. For you, it only took you two minutes. What about someone who had really, really struggled on this one? I’d be fascinated to have that talk.
Jordan: I’ll ask you to do one more question to try to tie this whole thing in a bow, cause you’ve mentioned climate change and a number of other social issues, and that we’re willing to help so far as we can. And is this just a symbol of why we don’t solve any of these things? Cause there’s a line of personal inconvenience or family safety that so many of us are willing to walk up to and pay lip service to, but not cross?
Matt: It’s a great question. And let me give you a probably unsatisfying answer. There was a great poll that I wrote a column about, about a year ago. It was by Ipsos. And it was about climate change, which again, we keep kinda getting off topic here, but I think the listeners will understand. The Ipsos poll asked a couple of different questions. They said like, do you think climate change is serious? How serious do you think it is? Is it an existential threat to the future of humanity? And like I said before, people know what the right answer is. So you had super majorities of Canadians going climate change is real, and it’s a huge threat to our future. And then the second part of that poll was, and how much are you personally willing to spend on it? And when you, it was kind of like, you know, Ipsos posed like kind of a multiple choice question, right? It was zero, up to $100, up to $200. And when you actually, what I found so interesting about this, is that you had, I’m quoting from memory here, so the numbers probably aren’t exact, but it was almost 80% of Canadians were willing to say, yes, climate change is real and it’s happening and it’s a threat to the future of human civilization. But then when you said to them, how much are you willing to spend on it? In order to get up to that 80% number, you had to set the ceiling and how much you were willing to spend at $200 a year. So you have, I drew from this, you had in this country, a super majority of citizens who agreed that there is something right now that is a threat to the future of our civilization. And they were not willing to do spend more than $200 a year to do anything about that. So climate change is a great example of this, but I think COVID, because it’s so visceral, really is the same. And you’ve asked me that great question of, is this why we can’t solve great problems? I’m not sure if that’s the right formulation. I think the problem is often we can’t solve great problems because we insist on trying to solve them based on our understanding of how human beings wish to be seen, as opposed to how they actually act. I’m a cynic on this. I’m an optimist to the extent that I think, you know, progress is possible. Progress is good. Progress is desirable in many areas. But call me a cynic man, but I think you’ve got to structure yourself the system of how you’re going to go about this in a way that actually fits within how human beings are hardwired. COVID and schooling is fascinating because it is plugged right into that parents visceral need to protect their child from harm. But if you look at it, like I said, these other issues like homelessness or almost any social issue, right? Because most of these things we could make big progress on and all we would have to do is devote huge amounts of money and attention. But we don’t do it, why? Because taxpayers like us are the guys spending the money. So this is a clarifying issue to us, cause it makes it very stark and obvious. I’m not sure it really reveals anything about us though, that we didn’t already know, even if we didn’t like to admit it.
Jordan: As you said it best, privileged persons enjoy privilege. Thanks Matt.
Jordan: Matt Gurney, and I will plug his newsletter one more time, it’s at mattgurney.substack.com. Thanks for listening. You can find more thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can always find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers. Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. And I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. Have a great weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
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