'A lifetime issue:' Saskatoon mothers creating preschool for immunocompromised kids

·4 min read

Kath Stevenson says the last 18 months are the closest she has come to normalcy in years.

The Saskatoon mother says before the pandemic, she and her husband would spend days and weeks in the hospital becausetheirimmunocompromised seven-year-old son would regularly get sick while attending school.

"Our lives were unpredictable. We couldn't plan to do much because we didn't know when he would get admitted next," said Stevenson, whose son has primary B-cell immunodeficiency and Down syndrome.

But when COVID-19 forced children to switch to online learning or to attend a sanitized school environment, her family's life "just shifted" because her son stopped getting sick.

"He hasn't been admitted for a respiratory issue since February of last year now, which is just shocking to us. The thing that would give another kid a cold would put him out for days."

Stevenson and other mothers with immunocompromised children saw an opportunity.

"We saw the possibility of what it's like to not be in an environment where there's a lot of germs, viruses circulating, and we thought why don't we try to create this?"

Their vision could become reality in January when Stevenson's four-year-old daughter, four other preschoolers and three children in elementary school start their first day at ART Co-operative School in Saskatchewan.

ART stands for At Risk Together and plans to serve children whose immune defences are low or who have family members who are immunocompromised. Stevenson is president of ART's board and also works in health care.

Set to be located in a Saskatoon home rented specifically for the kids, ART's staff consists of an early childhood educator and one helper. Both will either have immunocompromised family members or can understand the purpose of the facility's strict protocols, Stevenson says.

Her son won't be attending because he's already enrolled in remote learning at his elementary school, but her daughter will so she doesn't pass on any viruses to her brother. Stevenson said the elementary school children who homeschool or remote learn can join part-time, which would allow them to drop in for in-person social activities.

The preschool was to open this month, but because COVID-19 cases are rising, the board delayed opening a little longer, she said.

ART will have a clean-air filtration system, and families will be required to report if anyone in their home is even slightly sick to avoid potential virus spread to others.

"Families who sign on also need to agree to certain things (such as) weekly antigen testing for COVID and the kids do need to mask indoors," Stevenson said.

Stevenson is confident ART will be a success.

"Last year, we got together (three families) and we ran a playgroup out of my house with strict screening. None of the kids got sick, even though they were interacting in person without masks," Stevenson said. "That was awesome."

Kyle Anderson, undergraduate chairman of the biochemistry, microbiology and immunology department at the University of Saskatchewan, said the idea holds a lot of appeal.

"During the pandemic, people are a little more attuned to the fact that not everyone has the same capacity to fight infections," Anderson said.

"Minor colds that we might not even notice, could be something that's really debilitating to someone who's immunocompromised. (ART) seems like a great idea. It really makes for a secure environment where these kids can socialize."

The mothers behind ART raised $18,000 to launch the endeavour, and Stevenson says the $1,000 monthly fees will support operation costs. Families who can't afford the cost will receive a subsidy, Stevenson said.

"There's two federal grants that we would potentially qualify for, so we could actually provide this at no cost to families."

Emma Love, a mother of three, said she's on ART's wait list. Two of her kids are currently homeschooled and one is attending school in person.

"(ART) is something that's important to us because my husband's immunocompromised," Love said.

"We're so grateful a place like this is being created. I wish that there were precautions in place so that all schools were more like (ART)," she said. "Parents were searching and ... it didn't exist. That isn't the fault of school divisions, but a fault of funding."

Stevenson said she wants to see ART grow into a high school.

"There's always children going through cancer treatment or have a B-cell deficiency. It's a lifetime issue, so providing that educational environment right up to graduation is our goal in the long run.

"I can't even imagine going back to what we were doing. It was really hard."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 5, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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