'This is all they've known': Georgina family learns to minimize risk, stay connected during pandemic

COVID-19 is arguably one of most seminal events of the past century — one that divided all our lives between before and after. 

The pandemic changed our world and while the long-term impacts are yet unclear, it’s safe to say we’re facing a new normal.

With this story, we’re taking a look at how our lives have already been affected and what might be in store for us in the coming weeks, months and years.

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Having children is tough enough. 

Now, add a pandemic. Young children can’t recognize facial expressions behind a mask; can’t run up to other kids because they need to stay six feet apart; and parents question sending their child to school fearing the risk of transmission. 

“It’s just so hard, constantly,” said Georgina resident Samantha Griffiths.

The nurse and mother of two is constantly minimizing risks for her preschool son and baby daughter, both too young to be vaccinated.

“This is all they’ve known.”

She was pregnant as vaccinations rolled out and gave birth during the height of the spring COVID-19 wave in 2021. 

Nothing was the same — masks were worn in the delivery room and there were no visitors so her husband could not stay.

Her daughter was rushed to the Hospital for Sick Children, where, again, she was the only parent permitted to stay.

“I couldn’t hold her until she was 6 days old. My husband didn’t hold her until she was 10 days old.”

Born with a lung condition, her daughter struggled to breathe on a ventilator adding a whole new meaning to COVID-19 risk.

Small gatherings with limited, vaccinated family members took place outdoors and a HEPA filter was purchased for the Keswick home.

As the pandemic rolled on, rules changed.

“I think about how much time we’ve already lost in the pandemic. I don’t want to lose anymore,” Griffiths said. “I just manage my own risk and do what’s best for my family.”

While minimizing risks, Griffiths did not let the pandemic steal her children’s birthday parties — bouncy castles in the backyard, close contacts and masks.

“It was a blast; we got to watch the kids running around outside just being kids,” she said. “It almost felt normal. That’s the one thing I won’t take away from them.”

According to the national Social Connection Survey conducted by The GenWell Project, in partnership with the University of Victoria, about 60 per cent of Canadians are feeling lonelier now than at the start of the pandemic.

“The best medicine for people, is people,” said GenWell founder Pete Bombaci.

“If we all make the effort to connect with others on a daily basis, (that will) impact our own health and wellness and those we connect with.”

Early in the pandemic, reaching out to families became a critical service for the EarlyON Child and Family Centre run through York Child Development and Family Services, cold calling families associated with the centre. 

“Family support has been so vital during this,” said manager Leslie Chapman.

As the pandemic dragged on, early childhood educators switched from being on the floor to on the screen. 

“We (had been) strictly indoors, in community centres, schools, libraries. Then all of a sudden everything had to stop,” Chapman said.

By June 2020, all infant, toddler and preschool programs were fully virtual, offering more than 1,600 over 18 months.

Worried about screen time for youngsters, hands-on parent and tot programs such as sing-and-sign, infant massage and sharing circle centred on parents connecting with other parents.

With the child facing the parent, teaching is geared to the adults.

“It’s delivered the exact same as if we were in person,” Chapman said. 

“Most of the time, people were happy just to see another body.”

Along with making the virtual switch, centre staff became more creative in supporting families, by incorporating dedicated time for parents to connect with other parents as well as wellness chats, cold calls and even staying online after each scheduled program. 

“Before, it was so informal. Parents would come in for a program and chat with our educators. We had to be very mindful of how to incorporate that in.”

In-person programs, which recently resumed, as well as virtual and year-round outdoor programs will continue post-pandemic, Chapman added, opening these vital programs up to more families. 

“It’s like going to a restaurant; indoor is like in-person dining; outdoors is our patio; and virtual is takeout,” she said. “Something for everybody.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Reporter Amanda Persico remembers the vital connections made as a new mom by other moms at the park or participating in sing and share programs. She looks at how other parents are connecting as the pandemic continues to disrupt our normal ways.

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