Like most people, it’s been nearly a year since I’ve hugged my nieces and nephew. We Facetime regularly, and me and my sister exchange photos of our kids (when we remember to), but it’s no comparison to the closeness and coziness of pre-Covid life.

I miss holding them, reading to them, and observing the wild play that ensued when my son would join them after school, or on weekends. Most of the time, the scene would involve the kids running the length of the house, or scooting on top of a toy firetruck while simultaneously dragging stuffies on a tattered blanket. There were shrieks, wails, big laughter and, inevitably, big tears. I never thought I’d write this but I miss the deafening chaos. 

This past week, my sister sent a photo of her four-year-old son, curled under a tiny desk, taking a nap. On top of the tiny desk sat two items: a propped-up iPad and a big box of Crayola crayons. My sister explained that the teacher, over virtual learning, had instructed her JK class that it was quiet time, and many of the children were happy to listen to the soothing music she played and lie on the floor, in their respective homes. (I have endless admiration and respect for a teacher who can get kids to nap virtually—wow.) Needless to say, it was a very cute photo that captured pandemic life in 2021, but also a little heartbreaking that this is now what Kindergarten looks like. 

What isn’t seen in the photo is my sister, in the adjoining room, leading her Grade 10 English class. She’s told me that despite her best efforts (she works harder than anyone I know), engagement is waning. But she perseveres, and when my nephew loses interest in his JK class, and my niece takes a break from Grade 2—at the kitchen table—they will often both wander to their mom to sit on her lap, while she forges on with her high school virtual lessons, rolling with each complication (there are so many) in stride. 

The sudden move from in-school to virtual learning this past spring was hard, but as we were just beginning to grapple life with COVID-19, it also felt like a period of time that would end, or that we’d look back on in the following year, and be stronger for it! But with numbers surging in Ontario, in a way that is absolutely terrifying compared to last March, new virus strains popping up and an ominous message from Doug Ford that the new lockdown measures will make everyone “fall off their chair”, this new way of life feels less like a blip in time and more like the new norm that we must accept. 

For young children, pre-Covid memories are becoming difficult to recall. “I asked my son Elijah, who is five, if he could remember a time before the pandemic, when lots of people could be together at the same time, and I didn’t say “give space!” frantically when strangers approached, and no one wore masks. He thought for a while and said “not really”‘, tweeted playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who wrote the 2018 critically-acclaimed play, Secret Life of a Mother

Hannah’s tweet was a punch to the gut that saddened me and made me wonder if my son’s memories were also disappearing. Does he remember what it feels like to sing loudly and joyously alongside other children? Do my niece and nephew ever remember me hugging them? What else is being lost, or forgotten, in this pandemic era?

In a tender and poignant essay in The Globe and Mail this past weekend, David Sax shared how the move to virtual learning removes the sense of community connection found in and around the schoolyard before and after school. “This past week, as my wife and I attempted the joyless digital juggling act of virtual school, trapped once again in our home, I realized just how much I missed my morning ritual,” he writes. “School was always more than information transferred from teacher to student. It’s the relationships that hold it together, including us parents, that make it a deeper part of our life in the community.” 

My son is six (or six and three quarters, as he’d proudly tell you), and he often asks about how long the virus has gone on for, and if he’ll have to celebrate his 7th birthday over the computer, like he did for his last birthday. We have conversations about what we are most excited to do after the virus ends: Go to the ROM to see the dinosaurs! Visit our cousins! Have an indoor playdate! But I have no idea when that will be, nor can I reassure him when he will be able to reunite with his Grade 1 class. 

Like so many kids, he dislikes virtual learning. The disjointed audio frustrates him, seeing his pixelated peers upsets him, and he often sounds like he’s on the brink of tears when talking to his teacher on screen. I don’t force him to do it. Virtual learning may be the new normal, but it’s not normal, and definitely not for this primary school-age group. 

“In one short week of working and schooling at home, everything has unraveled,” writes Hannah Sung in her popular AtTheEndOfTheDay Substack newsletter. “One way I’m relieving the pressure is to be loud and clear that in our house, for me, school isn’t a priority.” Like Hannah, we’re also choosing to opt out to prioritize mental health. For him, for me, for everyone at home.

She acknowledges that it’s a privilege to opt out of online learning—a privilege we both share. I have flexible work hours, and I’m not worried about how I’m going to pay for groceries. There are families juggling shift work, illness, unpaid sick leave (!!!!!!!), and so many other layers that add to the impossible juggle. For some kids, that interaction with their teacher, is their biggest source of comfort in a day. Or as Hannah writes, “I’m only able to do this because school isn’t where my children get stability, food or just a straight-up place to be supervised by adults while their parents work outside the home.”

If you are finding that virtual learning, and isolation, is taking a toll on your kid’s mental health, child and youth worker Triana Copson has advice, “Find strategies that work for you and your family, and set small achievable goals for yourself and your children. Have them complete a certain amount of work and then allow them to finish the rest later in the day. This helps them feel less overwhelmed.” Triana urges parents to prioritize mental health over learning, and is a proponent of the opt-out option too. “Allow them to take days off. Do not force them to do virtual learning every day.” 

Movement and fresh air also help. If getting outside isn’t easy, because you live on the 26th floor of a building, try breaking up the day with stretches. CBC Parents has some great videos to get kids moving their bodies; we—like so many families in quarantine—we’re also happy to discover Cosmic Kids Yoga. Or put away the screens, so your eyes can get a break, and crank some fun music! The Weeknd’s “Blinding Light” or “Dance Monkey” by Tones and I are time-tested favourites in our home for shaking out stress. 

Whether your kid has adapted easily or not to virtual learning and life in lockdown, all families are bracing ourselves for the news that school will not reopen at the end of January. We get it, but it’s not easy. Thankfully, and despite everything, there are always sweet moments to be found in a day that provide much-needed levity, or as Amanda Munday, founder of The Workaround tweeted, “To the child who updates their whole (virtual) class every single morning on the status of their loose tooth, I hope you know how much joy you bring me.” These joyous moments mean so much—hold them closely, and share them. 

A lot has been written about how resilient this cohort of kids will be when they are adults, how they’ll know how to quickly adapt to different circumstances, or how this challenging time is teaching them valuable skills on how to entertain themselves. Yeah, sure. But I long for the day that my only child can play and learn freely with other kids, and I yearn to hold my nieces and nephew close again.

If you are seeking additional resources on how to best support your child during this time, CAMH has materials that deal specifically with helping kids manage their anxiety.  For more serious mental health concerns, do not hesitate to contact CAMH’s Emergency Department. More details here