Toronto mother Sara Marlowe spent part of the weekend helping her kids prepare for a return to in-person learning on Monday, when schools across the province were set to reopen.
Knapsacks were packed, lunches were made and an outdoor eating schedule was in the works.
“We will be sending them back, and it’s with reservations,” said Marlowe, whose children Adalyn, 6, and Beckett, 11, attend Dewson Street Junior Public School. “I’m just so angry that we are put in this position … We’ve been left scrambling.”
Last week Ontario announced schools would open Monday to the province’s two million students, who were forced to learn online after the winter break. School was initially delayed by two days and scheduled to reopen Jan. 5, but then Premier Doug Ford warned of a “tsunami” of COVID cases due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, and ordered a pivot to remote learning until at least Jan. 17.
On Sunday, Environment Canada issued a winter storm and snowfall warning for parts of southern Ontario expected overnight and on Monday, threatening to further postpone a return to in-person learning.
The delay in reopening schools gave the government time to deliver to boards more HEPA filters for classes, three-ply cloth masks for students, COVID-19 rapid antigen tests and N95 masks for staff, making Ontario the only province to provide N95 masks for all school staff. It also announced priority vaccine clinics for education staff and school-based vaccine clinics, during school hours, for students and staff.
In recent days, school board staff have been busy preparing rapid antigen test kits for students and staff, who will initially receive two tests until the province can procure more.
The Peel District School Board will start by providing tests to in-person staff and elementary students who become symptomatic at school on Monday, with plans to send tests home with all elementary students later in the week — high school students will get tests when the board gets more supply. Meanwhile the Durham District School Board has said it would start distributing its supply to staff to help keep schools open, and to kindergarten students because they’re too young to get vaccinated.
When it comes to getting jabs into little arms, the City of Toronto reached a milestone Sunday when it announced it has administered a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine to 50 per cent of five to 11-year-olds, amounting to more than 102,000 children.
Marlowe says while she’s “relieved” her children are fully vaccinated, deciding whether to send them back to school, amidst widespread community transmission of the virus, was very difficult.
For her, lunch time is a key concern because of the increased risk when students remove their masks to eat indoors. So, she has reached out to parents whose kids attend the same school to organize an outdoor eating schedule. The plan would be for one parent to pick up the kids from school, find a place outdoors to eat, and then have the students rejoin their classmates afterwards.
“We’ll find a way to pull them out to eat,” said Marlowe. “We don’t live close enough (to school) for them to walk home (for lunch) and be back in time.”
The Toronto District School Board says at lunch time, physical distancing will be maximized and when possible, students will eat at different times.
While Marlowe wants in-person learning to resume, she wants it done safely, and would love to see smaller class sizes, better ventilation in schools and N95 masks for students.
Parents who keep their children home will be accommodated by school boards for temporary remote learning. But it’s unclear what that will entail. For instance, it may mean that Google classroom is updated, or students are emailed assignments, but without live instruction from a teacher.
In a letter to members on Saturday, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, addressed the “range of emotions” as educators prepare for a return to the classroom.
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“Some members are enthusiastic and feel safe, others are cautiously optimistic, and some are anxious,” said Karen Brown, president of ETFO, which represents about 83,000 members including public elementary teachers, occasional teachers and education support personnel.
Toronto teacher Betty-Lynn Orton is of “two minds” with regards to returning.
“I’m going back for the kids, but I resent the fact that we’re being sent back and this government has done so little to keep them safe,” said Orton, who teaches at High Park Alternative Junior School. “I’m fully vaccinated, so I feel relatively safe. But many of those kids are not.”
“I’m in a wait-and-see mode. I know a lot of parents are in the same mode and a number of them have told my colleagues that their kids won’t be returning this week.”
Of concern to many parents and educators is that Ontario, similar to some other provinces, no longer requires that confirmed COVID cases in schools be publicly reported, or affected cohorts be dismissed. They are calling on the province to reinstate reporting and tracking of cases.
Given provincial changes to eligibility for PCR testing, and testing limitations, Ontario will now require families be notified when schools hit an absence rate of 30 per cent, which includes all reasons for an absence, not just COVID.
Some boards have indicated they’ll go beyond what is required. For instance, Toronto’s public and Catholic school boards have said that when they are notified of a positive case, confirmed by a PCR or rapid test, those in the impacted classes will be informed. The Toronto Catholic District School Board will continue updating its COVID-19 dashboard. And the Durham District School Board will report school absenteeism over 15 per cent.
Toronto father Marcelo Moraes says he and his wife feel “confident” about their sons — Lucas, 14, and Nicolas, 9 — returning to in-person learning. In part, that’s because everyone in the family is double vaccinated, except Nicolas, who’s had one shot so far. Plus, Moraes and Lucas were sick with COVID over the holidays, adding to their immunity.
Furthermore, he says the family has been adhering to public health safety guidelines and the schools his boys frequent have had few COVID cases.
“All of that makes us confident in terms of sending the kids back,” said Moraes, adding his boys are “glad to be getting back to school.”
“They’re happy to go back and to connect with friends, even with all the restrictions, and to interact with their teachers.”
Lucas, who’s in Grade 9 at Bloor Collegiate Institute, said while he doesn’t mind online learning, “I prefer to be in-person. I think it helps with learning, not just for me, but a lot of the other students as well.”
Toronto father Andrew Muzzatti says his whole family is “extremely happy” the kids are returning to Our Lady of Peace Catholic School.
During the recent switch to remote learning, he and his wife, kept Charlotte, 4, and Mason, 6 out of school because it was too challenging for the couple to work, while supervising the kids online.
“We made the hard trade off. Focus on our work rather than their school during the day,” explained Muzzatti, adding they spent time in the evening doing school activities with their children.
He recalls that when his son did online learning last year, he was “sad, unmotivated and absolutely hated it.”
“Mason thrives in class,” says Muzzatti. “He loves being with his teacher and his friends.”
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