Grade 10 student Elena Rinne can’t help but look at the new daily COVID-19 case counts hovering around 10,000 and worry.
She’s worried about going back to school next week, and having to eat lunch with 200 other students in an enclosed cafeteria.
She’s worried about the lack of safety protocols and social distancing at her school, where some of her peers and teachers are unvaccinated, and students often flout masking requirements.
But she’s also worried about the possibility of schools being shut down, and the impacts that could have on the mental health of her classmates and on her friends “who are not safe at home and need school as an escape.”
For Rinne, it feels like early 2020 all over again.
“I am terrified to go back to school on the 3rd, and I was recently talking to my parents about the process to go to hybrid learning,” said Rinne, who lives in Georgina and spent her Grade 9 year learning online. “I don’t like learning online, but right now I feel like my options are either that or go to school and get sick.”
“I feel like there’s no real plan to make sure that if we go back to school, we will be safe.”
As back-to-school looms amid an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, uncertainty among parents, students and staff is also growing around whether schools should resume Jan. 3 or if a temporary closure would help curb COVID numbers — and give more students and teachers a chance to get vaccinated or get boosted and return to school symptom-free.
Many experts, parents and students emphasize that they want schools to stay open, but say more measures are needed to ensure schools are safe as the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads, including: free N95 masks for all students and teachers, better ventilation in all classrooms, staggered lunch times for high school students and ongoing, regular rapid testing for all students multiple times a week.
They also say parents and students who work need guaranteed sick leave so they can isolate in the event of exposure.
But others say schools should be deemed an “essential service” and closures should not be on the table as long as malls and gyms remain open.
“I went by the malls the other day. They are overcrowded. They are packed,” said Bronwen Alsop, founder of the Ontario Families Coalition opposed to school closures, who works as an early childhood educator. “How can they remain open, but schools — which are essential — can be shut down? That doesn’t make sense.”
Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, a family physician based in Ottawa, says there is no easy answer about back-to-school.
“For schools to open in January, when we don’t have testing capacity, we don’t have rapid tests, we don’t have PCR tests, there is no tracing happening, people don’t have appropriate masks, that’s just saying we are going to throw caution to the wind,” said Kaplan-Myrth, who says she has decided to keep her 12-year-old home in January.
“That just means that the parents who can afford to keep their kids safe will keep their kids safe, and to everyone else we are saying we don’t really care if their kids get COVID. And the reality is, their kids will.”
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“It really becomes a question of haves and have-nots.”
Prior to the holidays, when asked about the possibility of schools shutting down, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said they were “not seeing any significant impact on children’s health” with Omicron and the province was “committed to keeping our schools open.”
But in just a week since that press conference, cases have doubled from 4,000 to nearly 10,000. Testing capacity for COVID-19 has been overwhelmed, and access to vaccine boosters has been spotty and inequitable across the province.
Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said the province has done a number of things to keep students safe in classrooms.
“Every step of the way, we have implemented the advice of the chief medical officer of health and Ontario’s Science Table — including improving ventilation in every school, deploying 70,000 portable HEPA units, high-quality masks, thousands of student vaccine pop-up clinics, along with expanded testing options and more staff hired to support safer schools,” said Clark.
“Our government proactively deployed take-home PCR tests to all schools and 11 million rapid antigen tests directly to all students learning in schools — the only province to do both — part of our ongoing commitment to protect students, staff and families.”
But Kaplan-Myrth says “nothing was done to ensure that every family had rapid tests. It was a joke to give five rapid tests to each student. It was insufficient. And it was outrageous that they weren’t given to teachers and educators and to child-care providers,” she said.
York Region parent Shameela Shakeel thinks a few weeks’ delay in reopening could give the province enough time to implement changes like staggered lunch hours, regular rapid testing and distribution of high-quality masks, in addition to the temporary shutdown of gyms and indoor dining in restaurants to curb the spread of the virus.
“I don’t want my kids learning online. They don’t do well online,” Shakeel said. “And at the same time, I don’t want educators and students back in school in unsafe conditions.”
“And with the case counts so high, I am already hearing some parents say they might keep their kids home anyway.”
Alsop, who has children with special needs, said parents who are worried about the new variant have the option of choosing online school, “but families who need in-person learning do not deserve to have that option robbed from them again.”
Despite differing viewpoints, everyone agrees the government should not wait until the last minute to make a decision — which would leave parents, students and educators scrambling.
“I am going to wait a few more days to see if the government makes an announcement,” said Grade 10 student Rinne.
“But if the numbers keep going up, I feel like I might just switch to online. The last time I was online, it was for other people’s safety, but now I am worried about my safety.”
Noor Javed is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering city news with interest in 905 municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved
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