On a Thursday morning in a church parking lot north of Jane and Finch, Belinda Afuda rifles through a cardboard box filled with items from an outdoor food bank — orange juice, a jar of tomato sauce, a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.
Afuda left behind a blossoming psychiatry career in Nigeria to come to Canada a couple of years ago, hoping to build a better life for her family.
Now, like many parents in Toronto’s northwest corner, she’s just trying to make ends meet in an area hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have to juggle between trying to get home to look after the kids and get back to work,” explains the health-care worker and mother of three.
And she’s bracing for an added challenge in the weeks ahead: The start of a new school year, with all three of her children attending one of the Catholic elementary schools in the city deemed to be at a high risk for potential virus transmission.
“I’ll be watching out for the number of students in class, first and foremost,” Afuda says. “If you have fewer students, the contacts will be reduced as much as possible.”
That’s the hope, anyway. What families in high risk areas will actually face in the months to come isn’t yet clear, but public health officials are already warning of the potential for ongoing spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Data analysis shows city’s hot spots
Over the course of the pandemic, the city’s hot spots for infections have been primarily lower-income neighbourhoods, including Jane and Finch and the surrounding communities.
A data analysis from Toronto Public Health (TPH), provided to both the local public and Catholic school boards, shows more than 100 elementary schools face the highest level of risk for transmission.
And while parents elsewhere are considering home-schooling or “learning pods” to keep their kids out of class, many of the city’s lower-income families say they have no choice but to send their children to school so they can keep working to pay the bills.
“I don’t like the idea of [parents] having to decide between working and putting food on the table and risking the safety of their child,” says Maria Rizzo, the trustee for Ward 5 at the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
“I’ve had parents call me up and say, ‘Why are you putting my child in a death trap?'”
‘I’m literally going on faith and trust’
According to TPH data, the neighbourhood with the highest cumulative case count to date — Glenfield-Jane Heights, with 524 cases so far — has experienced close to 40 times the number of cases as The Danforth, the area with the lowest case count at just 14.
The TPH elementary school rankings, provided to the boards in August, were based on COVID-19 case rates in each neighbourhood, along with the percentage of the population that is low-income, living in multigenerational homes, and visible minorities.
That analysis deemed 80 public elementary schools and 36 Catholic elementary schools in the top 20 per cent of all local schools when it comes to the risk for potential virus transmission after schools reopen, with the bulk in the city’s northwest corner.
“There’s constantly been this assumption that COVID-19 is affecting all communities equally, and that can’t be farther from the truth,” says Dr. Naheed Dosani, a Toronto and Peel Region-based physician and health justice activist.
“What we have actually seen is that pandemics like COVID-19 are like guided missiles that strike people living in poverty, and people of colour.”
While Afuda is “optimistic” the province and school board’s efforts will keep kids safe, she wasn’t aware that her children’s school — St. Simon Catholic School in Weston — had been deemed high risk.
It’s a concern echoed by Melicia Henry, a mother of one living in Humber River-Black Creek who says she’s barely received any specific details about the safety protocols at her daughter’s new school, Topcliff Avenue Public School, which is also listed among the highest risk facilities.
“It is stressful because there are so many uncertainties. You want answers — but there are no answers, because it’s not something anyone has charted before, or has a plan for,” she says.
“Especially parents that don’t have the opportunity to home-school, they have to send their kids. It’s either send my kid to school, or stay home and not work, and then have no money to pay your bills.”
After being put on leave from her job at a rehab clinic earlier in the pandemic, Henry says she’s been working a more precarious job since July, which doesn’t provide vacation or sick days. So, if her daughter gets sick or the whole class is sent home, she’ll be home as well — with no paycheque for the time away.
“I’m literally going on faith and trust,” she says of the new school year. “What’s my backup plan if this isn’t working?”
Public, Catholic boards focusing on high-risk schools
Both Toronto boards, and provincial officials, have been hammering out back-to-school plans and protocols, with a focus on the high risk areas.
The Toronto District School Board is spending more than $30 million to reduce class sizes across the city, with a specific focus on schools in the communities identified by Toronto Public Health as being at higher risk for COVID-19, noted spokesperson Ryan Bird in a statement provided to CBC News.
“There, we are capping kindergarten classes at 15 students, while Grade 1 to 8 classes will be capped at 20,” he added. “Recently, the federal government announced significant new funding and staff are currently assessing how our plans can be further enhanced.”
That $2 billion funding injection for safe school reopenings included roughly $763 million for Ontario, which provincial officials say will enhance their existing efforts, including $70 million for the temporary hiring of new teaching staff.
Rizzo, the trustee for the Catholic board, isn’t convinced it’ll go far enough, saying that amount is a “drop in the bucket” and might only allow the board to hire around 15 to 20 new teachers.
“If you put one teacher in one school, that’s only 20 schools, and that’s only one class,” she said. “If you think about the board as having 200 schools — which we do — then how is it possible that we can safely socially distance? It’s not.”
Shazia Vlahos, chief of communications and government relations for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, stressed the board is allocating additional resources to high-risk schools.
“Three-sided Plexiglas desk shields for students and teachers in classes of over 15 students will be considered with a focused prioritization of installation in schools in high incidence areas of highest [need],” Vlahos said in a statement.
“Additionally, the Board is making modification of vertical sliding windows as needed to increase the opening from four inches to 12 inches with priority given to schools in high COVID risk areas with no mechanical ventilation.”
Entire families may be at risk, advocate warns
According to Dosani, there needs to be an ongoing focus on high risk schools as the pandemic progresses.
“We really need to make sure equity is at the forefront,” he says.
Otherwise, advocates worry entire families could be put at risk.
Anna-Kay Brown, a mother of two and co-chair of the Jane and Finch Education Action Group, likens the potential ripple effect to the wildfire-like transmission that happened in long-term care homes, since many of the workers in her community wound up bringing the virus back to their neighbourhoods.
“I personally have friends that were affected by it,” she says. “They went home, not knowing, and gave it to their families.”
Against that backdrop, Afuda has been keeping a close eye on all the school-year updates, and stresses that she needs to have her kids back in class so she can keep working.
But, she adds, Ontario is in a far better position than many other areas around the world when it comes to handling COVID-19.
“We need to get our lives together and live with the virus like we’re doing right now — trying to keep our distance, trying to stay safe.”