An Anxious reopening  

Despite the risk of COVID, Mike Johnson and Pascale Pergant think their kids need to be back in school. Ten-year-old Elliot, who’s going into Grade 5 at Mutchmor, sits between her twin 13-year-old brothers, Owen and William, who are starting Grade 9 at Glebe.  Photo: Roger Smith

By Roger Smith

Kids are heading back to school and Glebe bars, restaurants and stores are serving customers inside again, but the champagne is still on hold – any celebration of getting back to normal is tempered by fears that reopening could lead to a resurgence of COVID-19 as it did in the U.S.

Like many parents, Kate Swan is agonizing over whether to send her children back to class.

“At this point, we’re probably leaning to keeping them home,” said the mother of a 10-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy at Mutchmor. “It’s the risk of COVID to them and to us. We also have grandparents in town that we’d like to be able to see. It’s a combined family risk we’re worried about.”

Pascale Pergant is worried too, but she’s leaning the other way. Her twin 13-year-old boys are heading into Grade 9 at Glebe and her 10-year-old daughter is starting Grade 5 at Mutchmor.

“Unless we see some glaring reason not to, I think we’ll send them back,” she said. “They really need to be social with friends, and they need help from the teachers – they didn’t do very well with the home learning in the spring.”

Elementary schools will go back full time, five days a week. High-school students will be in cohorts of 15; classes will be in-person one day, online the next. Masks must be worn in Grade 4 and up; they’re recommended but not compulsory for younger students. Social distancing will be in place in classrooms and hallways.

The biggest controversy – elementary-school classes will be as big as before, with as many as 30 in one room. By August 10, about 200,000 people had signed a petition demanding that class sizes in Ontario be smaller.

“My fear on the health side is the risk of the class sizes,” says Angela Smart, who wonders if her two kids will be able to adjust to wearing masks and keeping their distance from classmates. “Are we expecting too much from children in asking them to learn to change the way they play?”

Elspeth Tory, a mother of two, fears temporary shutdowns are inevitable. “There are just so many opportunities for people to get infected, even with low community spread,” she said. “If one student gets it, there’s a good chance everyone in the class is going to get it. I think school’s going to be a bit stop and start.”

Amid ongoing uncertainty, Glebe parents are wrestling with an emotionally fraught decision whether to send their kids back to school in September. Mutchmor Public School may soon be a hive of activity – but with a few bees missing? photo: Liz McKeen

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While parents may look forward to a break from home schooling so they can focus on work again, many teachers aren’t happy about the health risk they face. A survey by the Toronto School Board found that only 41 per cent of staff are comfortable going back to work.

The trepidation was also clear during a tour of Bank Street on July 17, the first night bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen inside. Patios were still more popular than indoor tables, and even some staff had their doubts.

“I just hope we are not doing this inside thing too soon,” said Aislinn Calvert who works at Irene’s, which still only had its patio open but has since restarted indoor music with capacity limited to 50, the maximum allowed. “Maybe they could have waited until September and saved a few lives?”

At the Glebe Central Pub, fewer than 20 people showed up that first night.

“People want to wait and see what happens,” says co-owner Dan Rogers. “If the numbers rise, they won’t come. If the numbers don’t, they will. We’re just happy to be back in business. The alternative is we’d be dead.”

Across the street, a young couple left Feleena’s with leftovers, after turning down an immediate table inside to line up for one outside. “We’re just getting used to patios,” said Aliya Sharis. “We’re just not ready to eat inside yet.”

But Emily Boudreau and two relatives from southern Ontario were more than ready. The three women sat at one of the few occupied indoor tables, all dressed up and drinking margaritas.

“We’re thrilled, so excited to be able to go out for dinner,” said Boudreau, as she and her companions pulled out their masks and hand sanitizer to show they’re taking COVID seriously. “My parents are high risk. We’re being hyper-vigilant.”

Feleena’s and other restaurants take the name, email and phone number of every customer for possible contact tracing. Staff wear masks; diners have to put them on to walk to the washroom. Tables are spread out to allow social distancing.

On night one, restaurants like The Rowan and Light of India remained dark. Flipper’s was almost empty. At Lansdowne, patios were packed but many restaurants were still getting ready to open inside.

Bobby Gorung, owner of BGGO clothing store on Bank Street, will close her shop at the end of her lease, after the store suffered sharply falling sales due to COVID-19. Photo: Liz McKeen

A survey by the BIA shows that 42 per cent of businesses in the Glebe saw revenue fall by at least half since the pandemic.  While business is better since reopening, BIA executive director Andrew Peck says confidence is still low because of fears of a second wave.

“Anyone who runs a business is in survival mode,” says Peck. “It’s difficult to plan for a future that is so uncertain. We do know there are some that just aren’t going to survive.”

One that won’t is BGGO boutique. After nine years on Bank Street, it’s closing in late August when the current lease runs out because sales have fallen so sharply.

“The only ones coming in were wanting to buy masks, and you can’t make a living selling masks,” said owner Bobby Gorung. “I’m afraid to sign a new lease because COVID is going to come back and be worse. It’s just very uncertain.” Asked what her future might hold, she mentioned one idea she had – sell online for a couple of years until the pandemic subsides, then maybe come back to bricks and mortar.

Roger Smith, a retired journalist, is copy editor of the Glebe Report and writes occasional features.

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