TORONTO — Students, parents and teachers in Ontario are bracing for another stint of virtual education after the province announced Monday that schools would not reopen to in-person classes for at least two weeks due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
Premier Doug Ford announced the shift to remote learning less than a week after his government insisted in-person classes would resume after only a two-day delay. That planned return to class — originally slated for Wednesday — will now take place no earlier than Jan. 17, though the province has said that date will be reassessed based on public health indicators.
Ford said the two-week pause on in-person classes would provide “much-needed time" for vaccines and public health measures to blunt soaring daily case counts, which reached record highs above 18,000 on the first day of the new year.
“I know online learning isn’t ideal, but above all else, I want to provide parents and students with certainty, not the turmoil of school closures because not enough staff are available to teach our kids,” the premier added.
The move to virtual classrooms had been anticipated in some quarters. Before the winter break, several school boards in the province had proactively asked students to take home their personal belongings and electronic devices as they prepared for the possibility of a switch to remote learning in 2022.
But the latest announcement still came as a disappointment for Toronto parent Lauren Bondar, who called the delayed return to in-person schooling “really devastating.”
Bondar said her six-year-old son had a tough time learning when teaching was done remotely earlier in the pandemic and that she’s worried another school closure will be equally detrimental to his learning.
“We are jeopardizing an entire generation’s education and development,” she said in a phone interview.
Bondar acknowledged that while she can work from home and look after her son while doing so, not all parents can.
“I'm fortunate that I work from home and fortunate that I have flexibility to support him to the best of my abilities. And that is something that many, many, many parents cannot say across the province,” she said.
Sheamus Murphy, an Ottawa-based parent of three including two school-aged children, was similarly displeased with Monday's announcement.
“It feels like it was avoidable and it's really disappointing,” he said.
“It's disappointing for my kids, it's disappointing for working parents who are going to be juggling again and it's a big loss all around.”
Murphy said it’ll be a “balancing act” making sure that his children are set up for virtual learning while he and his wife juggle Zoom calls and other work tasks in the coming weeks.
The head of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which represents more than 80,000 elementary school teachers and education workers across the province, called the delayed school closure “safer” than the original plan announced last week.
But Karen Brown said “additional action is still needed” from the government to ensure that children and educators can return to schools safely.
The head of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association shared that view, saying the government "must take advantage of the additional time they have given themselves, and act to provide the investment necessary for a safe learning environment."
"“It has been painful to watch our students suffer through repeated in-class learning disruptions, negatively impacting their mental health and academic well-being,” union President Barb Dobrowolski said in a written statement.
“The Ford government must act now and invest the resources necessary for safe and sustainable in-class learning.”
Both ETFO and OECTA are calling on the province to implement a host of protective measures including prioritizing booster shots for all teachers and education workers, making rapid tests available to everyone in schools, improving ventilation and installing HEPA filters in all classrooms and public areas, and continuing case count reporting and tracing at schools. The ministry of education issued memos last week saying it intended to abandon the practice of reporting cases in school and childcare settings.
A group of children's hospitals and health providers similarly called on the government to do all it can to get kids back into class by Jan. 17, saying members were "saddened" by the decision to move classes online.
"The harms to children and youth while schools are closed are significant," The Children's Health Coalition said in a statement. "Children and youth with disabilities will lose access to in person school-based rehabilitation services. Virtual learning and a lack of socialization with peers will create significant stress and potential mental health issues for children. Children and youth will congregate in other environments that may be less safe than schools."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press