Weeks ago, Katie Willette-Felstein’s son wept on the floor in protest at having to attend school virtually.
The Grade 2 student told his parents: “You were so lucky — when you were young, you got to go to school.”
It’s a comment that moved Willette-Felstein to tears of her own, and a reminder to her of what’s at stake as the family prepares to send kids back to class on Monday.
Last week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced a plan to reopen schools that remain shuttered in parts of southern Ontario over the next two weeks.
Schools in some public health units where in-person classes have been on hold will reopen on Monday. Those include Durham, Halton, Hamilton and Niagara, among others. Schools in the COVID-19 hot spots of Toronto, Peel and York Region are to reopen on Feb. 16, after Family Day.
With Halton schools reopening, Willette-Felstein and her husband are relieved to return their two kids (one in Grade 2, the other in junior kindergarten) to some semblance of normal life. But the uncertain future — with scattered vaccination timelines and the presence of new coronavirus variants — has them concerned the respite could be temporary.
“My worry is that we’re going to go to this routine of being back at school, then March break will happen, numbers will rise, and they will pull them out again,” Willette-Felstein said. “Going from being around many kids to being online, where you don’t interact, that was a huge change for them.”
Many experts agree it’s best for children to be in school.
A report released last month by a panel of pediatric experts at the Hospital for Sick Children said the best thing for kids was in-person learning, with “rigorous” infection control measures like frequent testing for COVID-19. The experts said schools should be closed only as a “last resort.”
That allows them the best opportunity to learn the curriculum, but also to develop important social and emotional skills — things that cannot be easily replicated online.
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But the concern that March break could be a repeat of the Christmas holidays — with more Ontarians visiting each other and helping to spread COVID-19 — has raised the possibility of cancelling March break altogether. The number of new daily cases has declined in recent weeks, but remains high, and there are fears that more contagious variants could cause counts to spike again.
Lecce said Thursday that he’s considering scrapping March break, and will make a final decision based on the advice of the province’s chief medical officer.
It’s a possibility that tempers the relief parents are feeling as they return kids to school, and adds challenges for boards, too.
The chair of the Halton District School Board, Andréa Grebenc, said she wishes Lecce had consulted school boards directly about the March break decision.
“We’re the employers of the teachers and the staff,” Grebenc said. “Does (Lecce) really understand the ramifications of cancelling March break (for them)?”
Kids, staff, and teachers all need time to recharge from the school year, she said, which has been complicated by the transitions between online and in-class learning.
“My mandate is student achievement and well-being. That well-being part is incredibly important,” Grebenc said. “Cancelling March break takes the opportunity to recharge away from students, teachers and parents.”
Grebenc said she hears from many parents about the disruption caused by the pandemic. About half welcome the return to school, while half are concerned that it could lead to increased transmission.
“I tell them I’m not an epidemiologist. I don’t know what’s best for health,” she said. “I know the best place for kids without a virus is in school. And in-school learning is far better than online learning.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
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