The back-to-school COVID risk no one is talking about

In the pitched battle over Ontario’s back-to-school plan, advocates say a glaring issue is being largely ignored, one that is critical for tens of thousands of families and increases the potential COVID-19 risk for elementary schools, even if class sizes shrink: Before- and after-school programs. 

With September just weeks away, child-care advocates say there has been an “abdication of responsibility” by the province to ensure these programs are safe and viable, further fuelling parental anxiety and leaving child-care providers and school boards scrambling. 

Before- and after-school care is a lifeline for many parents whose working hours don’t align with the school day but they can also see up to 30 kids mixing in a single space, often from different classrooms or even schools — meaning they could be part of two “cohorts” or even three, if they take the bus.  

Recently released guidelines on before-and-after-care fall short of addressing the most pressing concerns, some advocates and providers say. It’s a blind spot they worry could threaten these programs — and the families that will suffer most are the same ones that have been hardest hit by COVID-19. 

In other words, “people who are marginalized and people who are racialized,” said Julet Allen, program director with the Delta Family Resource Centre in northwest Toronto, which operates two after-school programs. “Women who are impoverished and have no choice but to be out there.”

Julet Allen, program director with the Delta Family Resource Centre in northwest Toronto, is among child-care advocates who fear guidelines on before-and-after-school care fall short of addressing the most pressing concerns.

Ontario school boards are mandated by law to offer before- and after-school programs for students from kindergarten to Grade 6. In Toronto alone, the public and Catholic boards support roughly 500 such programs, often located in school classrooms or gyms, and which have a range of operators, including licenced daycares and community centres.

Meredith Beyer-Alldridge’s children, 6 and 8, are enrolled in Beatty Buddies, an after-school program in their Coxwell-Danforth-area school. She says the program has been “a wonderful experience for our kids at a time when we’re not really able to give them any kind of active attention.”

“School itself does not fulfil the needs of families where both parents, or single parents, are working,” she said.

But what’s not being talked about enough is that before- and after-school programs “basically negate the whole cohorting idea,” said Amy O’Neil, director of Treetop Children’s Centre at Oriole Park Junior Public School in midtown Toronto.

“It exposes those kids to other cohorts during the day,” she said, “and then they come back to us at the end of the day. It’s a huge risk.”

These programs do increase the vulnerability of the entire system, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist with Toronto General Hospital and the University of Toronto. This means they will need safety measures as stringent as those for classrooms — if not more so.

“(They) just increase the size of a potential outbreak,” Bogoch said. “And it’s kind of a matter of time. Even though we have low rates of community transmission now, at some point in time someone’s going to go to a school, or an after-school program, with COVID-19.”

On Thursday, the education ministry released “COVID-19 operational guidance” for before- and after-school providers that includes policies for masking, screening, cleaning of shared spaces and physical distancing. It recommends limiting the mixing of cohorts by “making best efforts to group the before- and after-school program class with the same core day class” and using “large, well-ventilated spaces … or outdoor spaces as much as possible.”

“The ministry recognizes that there are unique challenges in planning for the delivery of before- and after-school programs in the current context,” a spokesperson said in an email. “As part of this planning, school boards are encouraged to consider strategies to limit the interactions between groups of students as much as possible.”

The spokesperson said the province, in partnership with the federal government, is providing $ 234.6 million to “keep children and staff safe” in child-care settings, including before- and after-school programs, but did not say how much of this funding they would get or when the money would flow.

Carolyn Ferns of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care has been pressing the government for months for direction and funding. She said the guidelines are “a slap in the face.”

“As time marched on, and we were told, ‘We’re working on it. There will be an announcement,’ you hope that it will be good, that they will have listened to what everyone has been trying to say,” she said. “And then when … the opening of the school year is breathing down everyone’s neck, to come out with something that comes up as short as this, it just does leave everyone really scrambling.”

“It’s wrong and an abdication of responsibility by the minister of education,” she said.

Providers of several before- and after-school programs in Toronto told the Star the guidelines lack clear directives on the big questions, such as how to limit interactions between multiple cohorts of kids.

They also expressed concerns about being allowed to operate at full capacity. This could mean up to 30 kids in a single classroom, which could make physical distancing impossible without more space and staff — the same issue that has drawn fire from educators and parents opposed to regular class sizes for elementary students.

“It’s just a wishy-washy recommendation that covers their liability. It really falls short on specific details,” said O’Neil. “It completely downloads the responsibility onto school boards and operators to make it work.”

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In an email, a spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board outlined steps it is taking to address before- and after-school programs — for example, maintaining attendance lists, a measure Toronto Public Health said is “strongly recommended” because it will help with contact tracing. Both the TDSB and Toronto Catholic District School Board said they would be following health and safety protocols.

But with time running out, it’s a scramble, and even tiny details can turn into logistical nightmares. For the YMCA of Greater Toronto (which has about 26,000 licenced spaces for before-and-after care), one issue right now is figuring out snacks, said Linda Cottes, senior vice-president of child and family development.

To safely prepare food, staff need a sink and fridge, Cottes said. In pre-COVID times, this usually meant using a staff room — but many are now being closed. While this may seem like a minor issue, it’s one the YMCA now has to troubleshoot for more than 280 programs across 14 different school boards.

Providers are now surveying families to find out their plans for before-and-after care. It’s a fraught choice for Joelle Kolodny, a single mom in East York, whose son is supposed to start in junior kindergarten at her neighbourhood school in September.

Joelle Kolodny, a single mom in East York, was still waiting last week to hear whether she had a spot in a before- and after-school program for her son Will, who is supposed to start junior kindergarten in September.

Last week, she was waiting to find out if her son still had a spot at Beatty Buddies, the after-care program Beyer-Alldridge’s children attend. But putting her son in after-care would jeopardize his ability to interact with his grandparents, a major source of support. Joining a private learning “pod” won’t work either, because she would still need after-care.

“I haven’t found a solution,” she said. “I’m truly panicked.”

Some providers are wondering whether they will be able to meet demand. Others, faced with reduced numbers and added protocols, are curbing hours.

At Delta Family Resource Centre, director Kemi Jacobs said her after-school program for kids from 8 to 13 at St. Roch Catholic School can only continue to operate safely if they receive more funding to increase staffing and classroom space. (The Toronto Catholic District School Board did not respond to questions about Delta’s program by deadline.)

The program’s community is in Toronto’s northwest corner, which has been hardest-hit by COVID, said Allen. Many families rely on Delta’s after-school program because it is free and kids who use it may have other risk factors for COVID, perhaps living in overcrowded homes or with relatives in high-risk jobs.

For now, Allen is planning to move the program online. But she knows this won’t cut it for low-income parents like Laurentia, who asked that the Star not publish her surname to protect her kids from stigma.

Before moving from Nigeria to Canada in 2018, Laurentia was a doctor. But in Toronto, she was unemployed and could only look for work while her 9-year-old son was at school.

It was only when she found Delta’s after-school program for her son — and daycare for her toddler — that she finally got work at a factory.

“If not for them, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said of Delta, breaking down in tears. “They just took away all my stress from me.”

When the pandemic hit, Laurentia was earning $ 15 an hour as a secretary at a medical clinic but had to stop working when her toddler’s daycare closed. She’s been scraping by ever since — so Laurentia knows she has no choice but to send her son back to school.

And if he has nowhere to go after dismissal? “It’s a scary thought,” she said. “I don’t want to go there.”

Rachel Mendleson
Jennifer Yang
Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

TORONTO STAR