With the start of a new school year just days away, some parents across the Greater Toronto Area are feeling uneasy about being locked-in to their decision to send their children back into the classroom amid an escalating fourth wave.
Several school boards across the GTA plan to offer families just one opportunity to switch between in-person and virtual learning during the upcoming academic year; and others will provide no scheduled chance for a transition.
The Toronto District School Board will permit families one switch in February 2022, where space is available. While the board is “committed to completing as many requests as possible,” not all requests will be accommodated.
A board spokesperson said the movement of students between learning models over multiple switch opportunities during the 2020-21 year was “disruptive to individual student success, reduced course options, (created) significant timetable changes, stress and anxiety among staff and students.”
On the other hand, the Toronto Catholic District School Board has informed families the learning model choice they selected through an online registration link between July 16 and Aug. 6 will be effective for the entire 2021-22 school year.
Carolyn Antoniuk, a mother of two children enrolled at the Toronto Catholic board, said she’s been “panicked” about sending her kids back to school since selecting the in-person model in the summer. While all eligible family members are vaccinated, her son, now in Grade 5, has asthma. Her daughter is in Grade 2. They’re both too young to be vaccinated, and have an immunocompromised family member.
“I’m preparing for them to go next week, but I’m terrified,” Antoniuk said. She’s even considering pulling her kids from school for a two-week sick leave, to buy herself time.
“I would do pretty much anything at this point to try to keep them home and safe.”
Her decision in the summer to send the kids back to class came after an entire year of “successful” virtual learning. This year, the circumstances changed; the board indicated students who chose remote learning would be removed from their current schools, and would be enrolled in the St. Anne Catholic Academy School of Virtual Learning instead.
She didn’t want to lose her children’s home school, Antoniuk said. Her kids have also been enrolled in the French immersion program since kindergarten. This year, the Toronto Catholic board will not offer speciality programs, like French immersion, virtually. So Antoniuk selected in-person learning and “prayed” case counts would be low in September.
“It’s like we’re being forced to choose between safety and education,” she said. “We’ve had warnings for several weeks about this grim autumn ahead.”
Dr. Jeffrey Pernica, head of the division of infectious disease in the department of pediatrics at McMaster University, said the safer choice for the majority of Ontario’s children is for them to be in classrooms.
“Safe is not the absence of COVID,” Pernica said. “Safe has a lot to do with the wellness of our children in total … and the vast majority of them are going to be more well within a school environment.”
He said families who saw the value of in-person schooling last year may have pulled their kids from in-person school because they had a particularly fragile family member at home. Now, vaccination rates among older and immunucompromised populations are much higher, but there may be families who are still concerned.
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He said it’s important to make sure people who are ill do not enter educational institutions, citing a 27-person outbreak at a California school which was triggered by an unvaccinated elementary teacher taking off their mask to read to students last May. California public health officials reported the findings of their investigation in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly report on morbidity and mortality released Friday.
As kids return to school in the United States, COVID cases among children accounted for over 22 per cent of weekly infections for the week of Aug. 26, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
A spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic board said families will have the ability to submit a transfer request to an in-person or home school, or to the St. Anne Catholic Academy, Virtual School of Learning. However, “transfers will only be fulfilled if there is space.” Families whose transfer requests cannot be accommodated immediately will be placed on a waitlist until there is an opportunity to transfer.
“In instances where there is no availability, a request to transfer may not be possible,” the spokesperson said.
Deepika Varshney, mom of one daughter starting in junior kindergarten at the Toronto Catholic board next week, said she also opted for in-person learning in the summer, when case counts were low. Now, as cases rise, so does her “tension and anxiety,” Varshney said.
“If cases will go on rising, and the government doesn’t close schools, parents should have the option to protect their little ones,” she said.
TCDSB trustee Markus de Domenico said the protocol was designed as a reaction to the “mass confusion” that commenced when people were migrating back and forth between systems. Classrooms collapsed, children lost losing their homeroom teachers and cohorts were jumbled, de Domenico said. Children need stability for their mental and emotional health right now, he added.
Some parents have come to him with concerns about safety as the province experiences a fourth wave, he said. It’s easier to transition children from in-person learning to virtual; there are physical constraints when adding children to classes, de Domenico said.
Like the Toronto District School Board, the Peel District School Board is also giving families one opportunity to amend the choice they made in the summer. Changes will become effective this month for both elementary and secondary students.
A spokesperson for the Ottawa-Carleton District School board confirmed requests for a change in the mode of learning will be considered on a “limited case-by-case basis” and subject to “extenuating circumstances.”
Operational challenges make it difficult for schools to offer more flexibility, said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.
“In a perfect world, it would be different. But it’s not,” Abraham said. “It’s a situation that’s fraught with concern … we all want to do what’s best, recognizing for educational and mental health reasons the best place to be is in schools.”
As the virus takes a bigger toll on some communities than others, if local public health units recommend boards implement more opportunities to transition, “that’s absolutely what will happen,” Abraham said.
Maria Sarrouh is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]
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