Educators and families in Ontario are scrambling after the province’s 11th-hour decision to shut schools to in-person learning and move students online for two weeks, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge.
The sudden pivot, which starts Wednesday when classes resume after the winter break, has frustrated many and amplified calls for the province to do more to ensure schools reopen safely.
“We had hoped that we would get to Jan. 5 and that we would be able to keep schools open for kids. Clearly, it is not safe to do so and it’s not prudent to do so right now,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.
However, “We’ve got two weeks to do something,” she said. “We are hoping the government will take those two weeks and not spare a penny” — as Premier Doug Ford promised when speaking from Queen’s Park on Monday — and get N95 masks into schools, include teachers in the now-limited PCR testing regulations and add the COVID vaccine to the list of mandatory shots for students.
The government’s announcement was surprising, particularly since last Thursday Dr. Kieran Moore, the chief medical officer of health, assured Ontarians schools would reopen for in-person learning on Wednesday. But Monday, Ford reversed course, ordering schools to switch to virtual learning until at least Jan. 17.
The move has already prompted one parent-led group Ontario Families Coalition, which has been fighting to keep schools open, to set up a Go Fund Me page to raise money for legal action.
Hamilton mother Jennifer Abbatiello says remote learning does not work for her boys — a nine-year-old son with autism, and a seven-year-old — so she will be pulling them out of virtual class.
“I’m not doing remote with them because that has an impact on their mental health,” said Abbatiello, who says schools “should be deemed essential.”
Abbatiello quit her job during the first lockdown to help her boys with schooling. She recently started working again from home, but “will have to stop given these closures and no extended family to help or other child care means, especially not under such short notice.”
Erin Pieper and her husband are front-line health care workers in hospitals and are now “scrambling” without any child care lined up for their kids, aged 5 and 7. She reached out to the emergency child care in Toronto they previously used, but won’t know until Tuesday if there are spots.
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“If they don’t open on Wednesday, one of us will have to stay home from our hospital jobs (to) care for our kids,” said Pieper, who’s a social worker and whose husband is a pharmacist. “I am incredibly frustrated that the Ford government waited to the absolute last minute to make this announcement and gave parents no time to prepare for school closures.”
Toronto’s public and Catholic school boards say many students already have devices that were shared last year, but those in need should contact their school.
In a letter to parents Monday evening, the Toronto District School Board said its priority remains supporting students’ mental health and well-being and to provide a meaningful learning experience. In the coming days, teachers will be contacting students to ensure everyone is set up on the online learning platform, such as Brightspace or Google Classroom. Elementary students at the TDSB have until Jan. 7 to switch from in-person to virtual learning, while high school students can do so between Jan. 5 and Jan. 7.
The TDSB says child care centres in schools can continue operating during this period, but parents should confirm with the operator. Meanwhile, before and after-school programs will be closed until in-person learning returns. The board is waiting for more information about the availability of emergency child care for 4-12 years olds in its schools.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which advocated for a delayed restart to in-person learning so additional protections could be put in place, called the province’s announcement Monday “a safer decision” than last week’s. But more is needed, says the union representing Ontario’s 83,000 elementary public school teachers, occasional teachers and education professionals.
“The extension is good, but I’m still hesitant about (January) 17th and whether we will be able to resume in-person learning at that time,” said ETFO President Karen Brown. “In-person learning is the best and it’s the most equitable way for students to learn, but it has to be safe.”
Similarly, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, which represents 45,000 teachers in elementary and secondary schools, says more must be done. Both unions are calling on the province to ensure all educators have N95 masks, everyone working in or attending school be vaccinated if eligible, prioritize access to booster shots for educators, install HEPA filters in all classrooms and shared spaces, and provide more rapid tests. They also want the province to continue monitoring COVID-19 cases in schools.
“It’s incredibly frustrating that this decision wasn’t made far earlier,” said Barb Dobrowolski, president of OECTA, adding educators, parents and students need more time to prepare. “It’s left everybody reeling”
Until Monday, teachers were feeling “a huge amount of fear” about contracting COVID if they returned to in-person learning, she said. “Suddenly, they’re again thrown into turmoil because now they have to scramble, to pivot, to virtual teaching, which nobody loves.”
“Making that switch is difficult, it takes time, and people have not been given enough forewarning to adequately prepare for it,” she said. At this point in the pandemic, many teachers are skilled at moving lessons online, but some may be tackling new course material and haven’t had time to adapt their material to online platforms, she said. “It’s hard to say how quickly this will get off the ground.”
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