Two million Ontario schoolchildren will be back in their classrooms next Monday, the Star has learned.
Premier Doug Ford’s office confirmed Monday night that “as planned and previously announced, students will return to in-person learning” on Jan. 17.
The move comes after kids and teachers have been forced into a fortnight of virtual learning due to the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 that threatens to overwhelm the health-care system. The news was welcomed with relief from many parents but raised concerns over safety from others. Virtual learning will continue to be available for those students who want it.
However, last week Ford said a “tsunami” of COVID-19 cases forced the resumption of online classes for “at least” two weeks.
That provoked an outcry from parents in a province where children have missed more in-classroom time than any other jurisdiction in North America.
Bronwen Alsop, a Toronto mother of two who has spearheaded an effort to keep schools open, said late Monday she was thrilled.
“I truly hope they follow through. The emotional roller coaster of this last couple of weeks has just been so intense on so many families, our children,” said Alsop.
“We’re falling apart.”
The mayors of Ontario’s biggest cities wanted the schools reopened next week, saying children’s mental and physical health is “paramount” and any further delay would only cause more anguish.
In a motion passed at a meeting late Monday afternoon, Ontario’s Big City Mayors (OBCM) said they are in support of calls from pediatric experts and parents to resume in-person classes.
The motion, moved by Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson and seconded by Brampton’s Patrick Brown, passed unanimously.
It says “that we do everything possible to make sure kids can be back in school, in-person learning on Jan. 17,” Brown said in an interview.
“It’s very clear that there are strong opinions from medical officers of health and pediatric specialists in the province that it’s in the best interest of children to be learning with their peers.”
Brown, who was Ford’s predecessor as Progressive Conservative leader, said there is a “cost to society,” given the academic losses and the toll on children’s mental health from learning remotely.
Because of that, the mayors hoped the “province will not have any further delay in bringing children back to school … I don’t see what an additional week of preparation would achieve other than more anguish for children.”
Initially, the government considered only allowing high schools to reopen first, given the almost 90 per cent vaccination rate among teens.
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Fewer than half of children aged five to 11, who only became eligible for their shots on Nov. 23, have had any shots.
But Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer and a strong proponent of reopening schools, signed off on the decision, sources say.
An additional 3,000 HEPA filters have been sent out to Ontario classrooms, atop 70,000 previously put in place. All educational workers, including teachers, will be given N95 masks and an expanded booster program with 10 clinics around the province has been launched.
The government hopes that allays concerns from parents and teachers who are concerned it is not yet safe to resume in-school activities because Omicron is so transmissible.
A return to school had been urged by experts at Sick Kids and Ottawa’s CHEO children’s hospital, as well as business and community leaders who penned an open letter in the Star and other Torstar publications.
Students in some provinces returned to school Monday while those in Quebec are set to return next week.
Brown said civic leaders pushed the province to act because of what their constituents are telling them.
“We are on the front lines with our residents — we hear directly from our residents,” the Brampton mayor said.
He noted it “is causing real anguish for parents” who are “worried about their children.”
Against that backdrop, the province has again come to an agreement with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation permitting retired teachers to log more hours in classrooms to help ease anticipated labour shortages, from the usual 50 days to 95.
A program announced last year that allows student-teachers to work as supply teachers will continue.
“We are seeing staff shortages impacting all sectors of the economy,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement.
“Well before Omicron came to Ontario, school boards were reporting high rates of absenteeism from education staff. We need staff in order to continue providing live teacher-led remote learning and safely operate our schools when students return to in-person learning.”
The Ontario Teachers’ Federation said there were staffing shortages prior to the pandemic in parts of the province and in teaching certain subjects.
Queen’s Park said about 40 per cent of school boards report that a quarter of teacher absences went unfilled last fall.
More than half of boards reported hiring student-teachers to fill in.
At the same time Ford announced the two-week school shutdown, he closed restaurants, bars, and gyms to indoor services until Jan. 26.
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