Everything Ontario parents need to know before kids go back to in-person learning

This pandemic we’ve all found ourselves in is ever-changing; shapeshifting before our eyes and creating the need to do things differently. The “new normal” is a time of constant readjustment in all areas of life and nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to parenting in the age of COVID-19. Despite the fact we are now two years into the pandemic, there are still no clear guidelines when it comes to keeping kids safe at school.

The provincial government announced today that parents will only be notified of a COVID-19 outbreak at their child’s school once there is a 30 per cent absenteeism rate among staff and students, meaning the chance of infection among classmates is high. You might find yourself facing positive cases among your child’s schoolmates almost weekly.

So what can you do? What tools are at your disposal? Whether you’re preparing for the inevitable reality of needing to pull your kid out of school for a week when a classmate tests positive, or for the worst case scenario of yet another school lockdown, we spoke to experts about what your options are.

Learn about available financial resources

Depending on your situation, you may be eligible for government assistance.

The Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB) gives income support to employed and self-employed individuals who are unable to work because they must care for their child under 12 or a family member who needs supervised care.

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) gives income support to employed and self-employed individuals who are unable to work because they are sick or need to self-isolate due to COVID-19, or have an underlying health condition that puts them at greater risk of getting the virus.

The Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit (CWLB) gives temporary income support to employed and self-employed people who can’t work due to a COVID-19 lockdown.

Parenting expert Alyson Schafer notes that many companies increased their health care coverage and widened the services available to help their employees. She suggests checking to see if there are more options within the company and their EAP (employee assistance program).

Try and work with your employer to find a solution 

Kiran Kang, lawyer at Goldblatt Partners LLP and parent points out that the Ontario Human Rights Code protects parents and caregivers against discrimination in employment under the ground of “family status,” but notes that where a parent’s childcare obligations conflict with their work, the parent may need to explore other possible arrangements for childcare during work hours, even if it means paying money for a babysitter or caregiver.

But if arrangements aren’t possible, Kang says employers have a legal obligation to work with the employee to find an appropriate accommodation. “As we have seen over the course of the pandemic, many jobs have been able to transition to remote settings, introduce flexible hours to reduce over-crowding in the workplace and accommodate childcare obligations and push the boundaries on what is possible within the workplace,” she says.

Kang suggests parents explore accommodations with their employer that may result in shifted work schedules, a work-from-home arrangement or a paid (if possible) or unpaid leave on days when their children are not attending school in-person due to a positive schoolmate. She adds this could also involve adjustments to work hours to accommodate parents who can’t get their children into before or after care. “In some circumstances, it may mean allowing the parent to take a leave of absence, although accommodation that would allow parents to remain at work should be explored first, unless both the employee and the employer prefer the leave option.”

Know your rights

Kang also notes that parents should be aware of the right to paid infectious disease emergency leave under the Employment Standards Act, 2000. Those who are covered by the ESA are entitled to up to three days of paid infectious disease emergency leave for reasons related to COVID-19, including when providing care or support to children and dependents when they are sick or have symptoms related to COVID-19, are self-isolating on the advice of a medical practitioner, or are providing care or support to their child who is getting vaccinated against COVID-19 or experiencing a side-effect related to the vaccine. These paid leaves provide eligible parents with the wages that they would have earned had they not taken the leave, up to $200 per day for up to three days. This program has been extended to July 31, 2022.

Create a parenting pod for yourself

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we all need support at some point. For those with children, Schafer suggests creating a parenting pod, a smaller group of people (with or without children) such as friends, family, neighbours or co-workers you can call on for support. Ideally, your “pod” can help with things like picking a child up from school if they get sick, providing childcare in the evening if you have to focus on a work deadline, or offering a place you can drop your child off to do online learning when you can’t be interrupted. There can be power in numbers so it’s worth reaching out to those close to you. “Having this list of names will make you feel more supported, just by naming them,” Schafer says.

Lower your expectations

Another fun lesson of this pandemic has been that even the most multitasking powerhouses among us just can’t do it all. To that end, Schafer suggests cutting yourself some (or a lot of) slack. “You may not be the kind of person who would waste money on a cleaning lady, but maybe you just need a one-off clean to keep you sane. You might not typically use a laundromat, but maybe getting six loads of laundry done all at once is a way to get a bit ahead of the curve,” she says. This is also where your parenting pod can come into play and perhaps one of them who has more time can even do a few loads of laundry for you if you drop it off.

“It’s time to get creative and ask for the help we need.”

Mental health resources

If you, your children or other family members are struggling, try these mental health resources and links for support:

Family Services Toronto

Gerstein Crisis Centre

Distress Centre of Greater Toronto

LGBT Youthline

Native Child and Family Services of Toronto

Toronto Seniors Helpline

Kids Help Phone

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