Opting out of school

What we're doing in this household

Welcome to At The End Of The Day. I’m Hannah Sung and I write this newsletter to help process the daily firehose of news.

I think about perspective on how to care for ourselves, our friends, families, communities and the common good.

Remember the holidays? Aren’t you *so mad* they’re over? All the naps and cookies evaporated and we’re left with this guy and a pandemic, still raging.

Choose your own adventure: laugh or cry?

On Wednesday, when these dingbats staged a coup, I was busy.

In Ontario, schools are closed.

My kids rattle around the house as I try to concentrate on work deadlines. How can I describe the vibe -- it’s like trying to dig out of an avalanche on your hands and knees while loud Smurfs prance around laughing, or alternately, fighting.

Today’s newsletter was going to be about working with kids at home, which, in our super-siloed world right now, is an all-encompassing experience that applies to you either 100% or 0%.

However, on Wednesday afternoon, we all watched white supremacist, gun-toting madness in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. And weirdly, the experience of watching this unfold is something we all shared. [1]

Even my kids.

I gave up on work that day to glue myself to live coverage. My children, delighted to sense I was in their favourite place on earth, the TV room, sauntered in and popped onto the sofa next to me.

Their glee turned to genuine fear as news images showed angry people, mostly men, armed and inciting chaos. The kids had questions. For a while, I tried to translate what was happening in terms they could understand but when I saw they were scared, I dismissed them from the room (they happily left to Smurf it up elsewhere).

In one short week of working and schooling at home, everything has unraveled. 

One way I’m relieving the pressure is to be loud and clear that in our house, for me, school isn’t a priority.

Normally, I can’t think of many things I value higher than education. But these aren’t normal times. And virtual school, quite frankly, can be stressful. It’s the stress I’m trying to avoid. So my priorities around school attendance have changed.

What are your priorities?

For our government leadership, the priority should’ve been protecting vulnerable communities, because by doing that, everyone would have been better protected. But instead of enacting the necessary tough decisions we needed last year to keep community transmission low and schools open, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce, a Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum pair of speaking-points clowns, continue to show us who they are. To quote ye olde Twitter fave, When people show you who they are, believe them. 

Doug Ford’s leadership rejects expertise. [2]

They sit on federal transfers meant to support people through this pandemic. [3]

They try to buy cheap popularity instead of making grown-up choices that would have better outcomes for us all. [4]

Epidemiologists have been trying to give Ford and his cabinet the answers this whole time.

But instead of looking to examples of success around the world, enacting better test, trace and isolate methods, or just rolling out the damn vaccine properly, Ford’s people think their spin will distract people from seeing how fully they have swindled people from the COVID recovery and vaccine roll-out we should have had. [5]

So we get it. Ford has shown us his priorities and his people have, too. St. Bart’s. Check. Got it.  [6]

This failure of leadership has downloaded responsibility, fear and loathing onto individual people. I can’t control the province’s pandemic response, but in my house at least, we can do things on our own terms.

Virtual school involves every child being on their own device, whether they know how to work it or even read. In short, I have adult friends who have been sitting through kindergarten all year.

For others, like my family, this week has been our first throwback to at-home learning.

I’m happy to say my 9-year-old enjoyed the one day he checked in to class. Afterward, he couldn’t wait to tell me everything about the gamified aspect to it, how he can earn stars and redeem them to acquire a pet (“Should I get the polar bear or the penguin?”) for his personalized, cartoon avatar.

Fine, I thought, I will let you go to school. I’m so grateful his organized teacher is managing despite last-minute flip-flops from the ministry of education. My kid is happy to see his friends and buy his penguins.

The 6-year-old, however, remembers virtual kindergarten from last spring. It was mute-and-unmute carnage.  The notion that this age group is interested in clocking four hours at a computer each and every day is ludicrous and I’m not going to make her do it.

Sure, maybe this is what education looks like right now. But is it effective learning? [7]

I say this with no disrespect to the teachers who work so hard to make virtual school as great as they possibly can. Effective teachers of small children are magical. But I don’t think that magic always extends to a glitchy Google Hangout. 

What a school day can look like around here. He’s nine and he takes his birds so seriously. No, you’re laughing.

During the Korean War in the 1950s, my Dad was the age my children are today. His family fled what’s now North Korea and they were refugees. My dad didn’t go to school for years. By the time they had resettled in Seoul, he was able to get back on track, alongside others whose educations were interrupted, eventually earning admission to the top university in the country. If he could do that, in a newly-resettled, single-parent family with eight kids, I think my own, heavily-resourced, Disney Plus-watching kids will be OK if they skip class a bit.

When I see parents on Facebook talking about how unhappy they are with this first week of virtual school because their children didn’t receive adequate French instruction, I’m very confused. These kids aren’t about to embark on a career at the UN. They’re in a pandemic. Priorities.

Short-term educational concerns, for me, have been shoved aside by news items on freezer trailers as temporary morgues, Ontario’s first field hospital, long-term care on fire. [8] [9] [10]

With uncontrolled community transmission and new, more transmissible COVID variants, I’ve switched from being afraid for others to becoming fearful for ourselves. 

Plus, there’s this whole thing about emboldened neo-Nazis storming the Capitol (or waltzing in to open doors) intent on destroying the democratic process. There’s the violence of these white supremacists, the double-standards of police enforcement and the mealy-mouthed ways in which the media protects whiteness.

Source: The Boston Globe [11]

These existential anxieties play off each other and are bringing me down.

So I’m trying to focus on keeping the kids happy, healthy and safe. That’s the priority around here, period. And if part of that is not having the stress of coordinating four people’s schedules on four different devices plus their millions of passwords, so be it. 

I recognize it’s a huge privilege, financially and otherwise, to say I don’t prioritize school in a pandemic. 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.

Whatever you want to call this -- unschooling or women leaving the workforce, since I had to divest myself of some work to accommodate the kids being home -- I’m grateful we have this wiggle room. [12]

I know it doesn’t exist for essential or frontline workers or parents of children with special needs and many others.

I reached out to a fellow Toronto parent who is also a vice-principal at an elementary school. I asked if she thought it was nuts that I’m fine with opting out of classes.

“Not at all!”

Did she have any advice, I tried to ask in a cool and non-desperate manner, for someone like me?

“I honestly think the only advice is do what’s right for your family.” I felt immense relief.

I thanked her because sometimes you just need someone with professional expertise to give you the permission to go with your gut.

The world is on fire in many ways and I realize that just telling my kids about what’s happening in this moment, in an age-appropriate way, is a massive learning opportunity, no passwords required. Real face time included.

Keep pressing the people in charge to use what levers they have to make life better for people in this pandemic. It’s only going to get worse before it gets better.

Stay safe out there.


At The End Of the Day is edited by Ishani Nath ✨✨✨


[1] Capitol Insurrection Drives Huge Audience To TV News, Hollywood Reporter

[2] Shelley Deeks, the Public Health Ontario whistleblower on colour-coded COVID restrictions, is leaving for a job in Nova Scotia, The Toronto Star

[3] Ontario sitting on $8.7 billion meant for COVID support, says spending watchdog, iPolitics

[4] Ontario high school parents are now eligible for $200 payments, The Toronto Star

[5] Where’s the urgency in Canada’s vaccine rollout? The Globe and Mail

[6] Rod Phillips paid the price for his deception. But Doug Ford deceived us, too, The Toronto Star

[7] Concurrent classrooms are a failed response to COVID-19 pressures, Behind The Numbers, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

[8] First Ontario COVID-19 field hospital open for patients in Burlington, CBC

[9] CTV interview with long-term care researcher and advocate Vivian Stamatopoulos

[10] Paramedics alarmed by conditions inside home with Ontario’s worst LTC outbreak, The Globe and Mail

[11] How the arrests in the Capitol riot on Wednesday compare to that of Black Lives Matter protests, The Boston Globe

[12] Women leaving workforce faster than men, childcare playing big role in exodus: study, CTV News

While I’m eschewing devices, please remember that phones with a service plan are lifeline connections. ALAB Clinic is a Toronto organization picking up used phones for unhoused people across the city. If you live elsewhere, maybe you can find a drive like this in your own location.

Credit: Unsplash, Helay Hassas