Toronto Star

Parents eager to see kids have fun again

Adults navigate pitfalls of planning children’s pandemic social lives


Andre Berg-Bradshaw’s 11th birthday was a lonely affair, spent at home with family as the province battled the pandemic’s deadly second wave.

Now, a year later — and with a growing number of Ontario residents fully vaccinated — Andre’s mother Jen Berg is determined to make sure he’ll celebrate his 12th birthday surrounded by friends.

But she’s also taking precaution­s, aware that many in her son’s age group are not yet vaccinated, and opting to shift the party from an indoor play centre to a public park to minimize risks.

“We feel it’s the safest alternativ­e and we just want the kids to have fun,” said Berg.

After 19 months of navigating a deadly pandemic that has resulted in frequent school closures, social disruption­s, and a well-documented adverse impact on child mental and physical health, many parents are also eager to see their children have fun again, now that Ontario has reopened.

But at a time when schools have become the leading source of COVID-19 outbreaks in the province, driven by elementary schools where most children have not yet had the jab, balancing a child’s social calendar is proving to be complex.

In the week ending Oct. 9, there were 755 cases of COVID-19 in children 11 and under in Ontario. While there isn’t a vaccine currently available for young children in Canada, Pfizer is set to seek approval for its shot for kids five and up within days.

In the meantime, parents face tough decisions around which invitation­s they feel comfortabl­e having their children accept, and even having to pose that awkward question to other families: Are you vaccinated?

“It’s challengin­g, and part of it depends where you live. If you live in Alberta, it’s very different than if you live in rural parts of Ontario,” said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Toronto. In Alberta, COVID-19 cases have been climbing and hospitals are under strain.

Part of the risk assessment should be determinin­g if your family is fully vaccinated, and if the event your child is going to includes another family where eligible family members are vaccinated, she said.

However, if any family has relatives from vulnerable groups, including older adults, that’s a factor that needs to be considered, she explained.

“You don’t really want to have a whole bunch of kids indoors, and some of them are not vaccinated, at a sleepover,” she said.

In Ontario, venues like indoor play areas and restaurant­s must abide by double-vaccinatio­n mandates for those age 12 and older, rules that came into effect Sept. 22. Masks are also required at all times when not consuming food.

In places like Alberta where COVID-19 case counts are high, Banerji wouldn’t recommend any indoor hangouts for children who are unvaccinat­ed. But in Ontario, small gatherings could work, as long as their families are vaccinated and no one is interactin­g with relatives that are high risk, she said.

In the summer months, hosting events outdoors was an easy decision, but with the weather getting chillier, kids may start receiving invitation­s for indoor celebratio­ns or sleepovers.

Undoubtedl­y, disappoint­ment will be part of the equation this fall and winter as some families may have to cancel gatherings or events for their children, including birthdays, for the second year in a row.

Nicole Christie, a teacher from Waterloo Region, said her five-year-old son was recently invited to a birthday party at an indoor play centre. They had to cancel last minute, as he wasn’t feeling well.

“There was some disappoint­ment, but he understood. I just said, ‘We’ll plan another playdate later on,’ ” she said. For the most part, Christie allows her son to have playdates outdoors with children whose families are fully vaccinated.

But recently she found a note in her son’s backpack requesting a playdate with another child, which left Christie in an awkward position. “It’s not that I don’t want him to have a playdate, it’s (having to raise) that awkward question of, ‘Are you vaccinated?’ ” she said.

Asking other families about their vaccinatio­n status and speaking to kids about whether they can attend events this fall can be challengin­g conversati­ons, said Nicole Racine, a clinical psychologi­st and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, specializi­ng in childhood adversity and mental health.

“We don’t want to disappoint (our kids),” she said. But it’s important to remember that the challenges of COVID-19 are not new for children at this point, and having open and honest conversati­ons with them will help them navigate negative emotions around cancelled or modified events, said Racine.

“Acknowledg­ing and validating how your child is feeling, say, for example, you’ve made a decision where they won’t be allowed to attend something ... it’s acknowledg­ing the disappoint­ment and sadness in that,” she said. Providing emotional support also involves saying, “I understand that you’re disappoint­ed,” offering reassuranc­e and then problem solving, she said.

Instead of attending an event, your child could drop off a gift and then go for an outing with their immediate family or another small group with whom they feel more comfortabl­e, she explained.

It’s also important to prepare children for events, including if masks are required at all times and if sharing of food isn’t allowed, said Lindsay Malloy, an associate professor of forensic psychology at Ontario Tech University, who is also the cofounder of Pandemic Parenting, a non-profit that shares science-based COVID-19 informatio­n and resources with caregivers.

Kids should also be prepared if they need to suddenly leave an event, such as if an outdoor event ends up indoors, she said.

“As parents, we always have to ask uncomforta­ble questions of people,” she said. “Preparing (kids) that if the situations ends up not what you expected it to be ... if no one is wearing a mask, then we might have a code word.”

It’s also important not to project your own disappoint­ment or anger about an event cancellati­on because kids take their behaviour cues from their caregivers, she explained.

“Just being careful that our vibe isn’t coming off that this is ‘so terrible,’ because they definitely pick up on our emotions,” she said.

And while adults may feel annoyed that they had to move an event outdoors or not invite a child’s entire class to a party, the child may not care too much, said Malloy.

“With events that look different than before ... the kids may not mind,” she said. “They might be disappoint­ed but they also might not be, which is OK, too.”

For her part, Berg let Andre know last week that his birthday plans were changing and that they’d need to move his party outdoors because the family felt it would be too risky to be around unvaccinat­ed kids at an indoor venue.

Next week, when Andre and his friends, including several boys from his Grade 7 class, gather at the park for an all-out Nerf gun battle and a feast of takeout pizza, it will be the first “normal” event for the family in what feels like forever.

Andre says he’s totally fine with the change of plans — he’s just grateful to be seeing friends and to be able to have a party.

“It’s actually all right with me,” he said. “I rarely do stuff inside, and I’m an outside person.” Meanwhile, Andre also has another big plan in the works — he can’t wait to be vaccinated.

“You don’t really want to have a whole bunch of kids indoors, and some of them are not vaccinated, at a sleepover.” DR. ANNA BANERJI PEDIATRIC INFECTIOUS DISEASE PHYSICIAN

 ?? ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE TORONTO STAR ?? Jen Berg with children Andre, 11, and Aaliyah, 3, outside their home in Toronto. Berg chose to shift her son’s 12th birthday party planned for late October from an indoor play centre to a public park in order to minimize risks amid the pandemic.
ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE TORONTO STAR Jen Berg with children Andre, 11, and Aaliyah, 3, outside their home in Toronto. Berg chose to shift her son’s 12th birthday party planned for late October from an indoor play centre to a public park in order to minimize risks amid the pandemic.
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