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Families hesitant to send kids to school in areas deemed high risk for COVID-19

Last Updated Sep 9, 2020 at 5:40 am EDT

Nela, a grade 4 student, will be starting her school year like many others in Thorncliffe Park – at home.

Thorncliffe Park has been identified as one of Toronto’s hotspots for COVID-19, where residents are at high risk for new cases. Many are fearful that sending kids back to school may exacerbate the issue.

“She’s scared because maybe the little kids have coronavirus,” said Nela, translating for her mother in English.

Of the 1,400 students enrolled at Thorncliffe Park Public School, only 57 per cent have indicated they’re returning in person as elementary schools in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) are set to reopen to students next week.

Compared to schools across the city, the number may not seem extraordinary. So far, 63 per cent of all TDSB students have indicated they’re returning to class in person, while 28 per cent have confirmed they will be learning online instead.

The contrast, however, is much more marked when spread across neighbourhoods.

In the Windermere neighbourhood, where case rates have stayed low, nearly 80 per cent of kids are going back to school in person. The numbers are similar in the Beaches neighbourhood.

Paulette Taylor, another mother in Thorncliffe Park, said her concern is focused on how the school will keep her kids safe as it was already overpopulated to begin with.

“In my kid’s [class] they already have about 30 kids just before COVID, so are we really sure that they’re going to have 30 kids or less?” asked Taylor.

Some parents in the neighbourhood have taken even more drastic action. One parent CityNews spoke to who wished to remain anonymous said he moved his kids to another country to live with their grandparents, rather than risk sending them to school in Thorncliffe Park.

Tanweer Khan, a community representative who is active in the Thorncliffe area, says he’s concerned about how flu season will play into the uncertainty of kids going to school, and parents are worried they won’t be able to tell the difference between it and the virus.

“Some parents, they both work and they can’t afford babysitting or child care. That’s why their kids go to school,” he says, adding he’s had many conversations with parents in the neighbourhood.

“Some people are sending their kids. They’re working class and they don’t have anyone to babysit […] They need support for that too.”

Within the Toronto District School Board, 39 of the 80 schools deemed high risk have less than half of kids registered to return in person right now.

As a result, the TDSB has 31 high-risk schools with at least a third of students confirmed to be moving online.

Incidents where the board received no response as to whether students are electing in-person or online learning are high too, with schools scrambling to find out the final numbers by next week.

These numbers are paired with the fact that the kids opting to stay home also come from some of the lowest income households in the city, with a significant number not speaking English at home.

Thorncliffe Park has twice the city’s overall poverty rate at 45.5 per cent compared to Toronto’s 20.2 per cent average. The median household income in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood is between $46,580 and $51,964, compared to the city’s average of $65,829.

Michelle Dagnino, the Jane-Finch Centre executive director, said they are seeing much higher numbers in schools than what they have been told is safe.

“Even though they are smaller numbers than in other schools across the GTA, what we know is that [in] these high-risk neighborhoods, these schools are going to be at a higher risk of COVID,” said Dagnino.

Among the six elementary and middle schools which serve the majority of the Jane-Finch community, the number of students returning to class in person averages just between 40 and 47 per cent.

Travel to and from school in high-density neighbourhoods is another reason parents have chosen to keep children at home, especially in multi-generational households.

Safiyyah Motala, another mother from the Thorncliffe Park community, said some parents wait upwards of an hour to take the elevator down in high-rise buildings.

Dagnino says the extra load means they’re turning to grandparents and other relatives for support.

“[There] are a lot of parents who can not afford to miss school or not able to [have] accommodations that allow them to work from home, so they need to keep their children at home so that they’re not risking illness even if it’s not cold,” said Dagnino.

“There’s just so many different components of risk and schools seems to really be flash point for all these different convergences of everything that we’re afraid of when it comes to COVID,” added Dagnino.

High-risk neighbourhoods and school enrollment

Thorncliffe Park:

1400 students enrolled at Thorncliffe Park PS – 57% returning in person, 34% registered for online

494 students enrolled at Fraser Mustard ELA – 55% returning in person, 35% registered for online

Neighborhood facts:

Median household income: $46,595 (Toronto average: $65,829)

More than twice the city’s poverty rate (45.5% LIM-AT vs city’s 20.2% average)

58% of households don’t speak English at home (city average 29.2%) – 6.4% of residents can’t speak English at all.

Jane-Finch (South/Glenfield Jane Heights):

386 kids enrolled at Firgrove PS – 41% in person, 31% online

320 kids enrolled at Yorkwoods PS – 37% in person, 26% online

330 kids enrolled at Topcliffe PS – 47% in person, 34% online

Neighbourhood facts:

Median household income: $51,964

Almost a quarter living in low-income (23.4% vs city’s 20.2% average)

44% of households don’t speak English at home.

Jane-Finch (North/Black Creek):

353 kids at Driftwood PS – 42% in person, 28% online

419 kids at Brookview MS – 46% in person, 30% online

242 kids enrolled at Gosford PS – 40% in person, 30% online

Neighbourhood facts

Median household income: $46,580

Almost a quarter living in low-income (23.4% LIM-AT vs city’s 20.2% average)

44% of households don’t speak English at home.

Map of TDSB schools at high-risk for coronavirus