TORONTO - COVID-19 fears will keep Rachel Danzinger-Marmer from sending her two grade-schoolers back to class this fall.

And a hectic family business - along with their toddler and baby siblings - will make it impossible for her to help them learn remotely.

Danzinger-Marmer says getting her kids an education has raised mind-boggling concerns neither the government nor her private school seem able to satisfy.

So she's taking matters into her own hands.

The Toronto mom wants to hire someone to oversee her kids' online classes for her, or bubble with another family to share that cost, noting they needed constant supervision last spring.

“They're playing with each other, they're distracted by the toddler and the baby, and I don't have the time to sit with them. It was really difficult and I don't think they gained anything through it.”

With just five weeks to a new school year, many parents unsatisfied with their region's back-to-school plan are scrambling to create new arrangements that address infection fears, learning goals, kids' emotional and social needs and caregiving.

Those who can afford it, of course.

Such initiatives are possible only for those who can pay for help, work from home or pull out of the workforce entirely, and education critics fear that will further deepen social, educational, economic, and health inequities.

Opting out of class can incur significant out-of-pocket expenses - Danzinger-Marmer says she knows of one multi-family bubble that hired a full-time tutor for the school year at a shared cost of $40,000. Some larger bubbles like these may also need to rent a communal space to host their classes.

Even without a tutor, remote learning costs add up: there's lost income for the parent forced to remain home, and paying for better Wi-Fi and bandwidth for video conferences and live streaming, printer ink, and possibly an additional computer or mobile device.

Some families are also ditching their school's remote learning curriculum to build their own lesson plan - which costs money, too, says Ottawa mom Megan Kilgour.

Kilgour has sworn off both Ontario's in-class and remote learning plans after finding “the support just was not there” for online classes last spring. She's now cobbling together a customized curriculum for her 10-year-old daughter through various paid, online resources.

But parents still need financial help to do that, she says.

“The amount of funding to schools is not enough but the amount of funding to parents - if they're banking on us keeping our kids home - is non-existent,” says Kilgour, upset that Ontario's elementary class sizes are not being reduced while physical distancing standards won't be mandated.

“Some of these curriculums that I was looking at are $500.”

Kilgour is negotiating group memberships for learning sites like IXL Canada and Muzzy, investigating live online classes offered by Outschool and the possibility of teleconferenced French classes, and collecting a stash of “manipulatives” - coloured blocks, chips, cubes and other objects to help her daughter visualize math concepts.

Ontario's NDP education critic sympathizes with parents driven to alternatives, but worries it will result in even deeper inequities as poorer families contend with heightened risks at school and work. Marit Stiles also expects many women will face the costly decision to leave their job in order to care for children.

“We know that it's not really a choice for every family and every woman, it's just simply not. And the impact on the economy and economic recovery is going to be massive,” says Stiles, a former Toronto District School Board trustee.

Sarah Stewart of home-school Social Magazine says the pandemic has spurred many families to consider opting out of class for the first time, based on the avalanche of inquiries to her Facebook home-schooling group, based in Ottawa.

“I've probably accepted 500 new people in the past month who are planning to keep their children home,” she says.

For some, it's temporary and they're hewing close to their school's remote learning plan for an eventual transition back to class, says Stewart.

Others are charting their own course, with lesson plans driven more by their child's particular interests.

Then there are the private school parents like Danzinger-Marmer, who is debating whether to switch her two kids to the public system since they're leaning towards remote learning anyway.

“That's basically like a 'free' curriculum and then, you know, we pay the additional (fees) to have somebody come in and coach them,” she says.

She's already amassed a good network of families and educators to partner with through her Facebook group, Learning Pods Ontario.

With more than 1,000 members, it includes parents seeking help, tutors for hire and business owners looking to rent out unused workspaces as make-do classrooms.

Danzinger-Marmer says she's also trying to build a network of families willing to sponsor those unable to hire a tutor by welcoming them into their bubble.

So-called “forest schools” are also gaining popularity, with Brittany Boychuk of Nature Connections encouraging parents to consider outdoor learning.

Boychuk runs year-round camp-style excursions to augment home-school curriculums but says an upswing in interest has her debating a pivot to daylong programs in the fall.

“People seem to be actively seeking us out being like, 'Dear God, can you please help our kids?”' says Boychuk, based in Ottawa.

These parents want safe spaces where kids can freely interact, without distancing, she says.

“They are worried about the mental health of their children, and they don't think it's healthy for them to be playing with other kids where they can't read each other's facial expressions because of the masks and needing to constantly stay away from each other,” says Boychuk.

Whatever families decide, Stewart encourages kids and parents alike to stay flexible in their expectations this school year.

She's offering tips through a five-day “Socially Distanced Homeschool Conference” that launched Monday, with tickets available through her magazine's website.

“Don't pigeonhole your home school into what you think it should look like because things are going to change - we're actually in a state in the world where things are constantly going to be changing.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2020