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Ontarians waiting on back-to-school plan amid unprecedented Omicron spread


Classes are set to resume in much of Ontario next week, but families still don't know if kids will be learning in school or at home as the government mulls whether to reopen amid unprecedented levels of COVID-19 spread. 

"It’s making me really anxious. I feel like all week I've been noticing my stress levels have been going up," parent Laura Jackson said in an interview from her home in South Mountain, Ont., outside of Ottawa.

Jackson said she would have preferred the government had a plan in place to ease her worries. Her daughter is four years old, still too young to be vaccinated against the virus. She and her husband are worried about her getting sick, although both of them have received three vaccine shots.

"She loves her teachers and she loves what she's learning, but then at the same time, we don't want her to get COVID either," Jackson said. “Right now there isn't really anything that's been putting parents' minds at ease."

Ontario logged a record-breaking 10,436 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, just days after the daily tally breached the 10,000 mark for the first time since the pandemic began. 

Hospitalizations are up by 235 people Wednesday from the day before, with 726 now in hospital with COVID-19.

Intensive care admissions were also on the rise, with 190 people in intensive care due to the virus. Public health resources like testing and contact tracing have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases.

With the highly infectious Omicron variant driving similarly unprecedented virus trends across the country, some provinces have decided to extend the winter break for students and keep kids out of class for longer.Newfoundland and Labrador announced Wednesday that learning would happen remotely starting Jan. 4, while Nova Scotia and Quebec have extended students' winter breaks until Jan. 10.

Ontario was still looking at its options by mid-week. Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday that an announcement would come within days after consultations chief medical officer of health.

"We just want to see how things go," he during a visit to a vaccination clinic in Mississauga, Ont. 

On Wednesday, opposition parties called for clarity from the government on its back-to-school plan, highlighting the need for more advanced safety measures in schools and a clear plan for testing and contact tracing. 

"It’s just ridiculous that with only days to go, no one knows what’s happening Monday," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in an emailed statement. 

Horwath said the New Democrat position is that schools should not be closed if big box stores and sports stadiums are still open and drawing big crowds. 

But she said the government should have prioritized schools, and used the holiday period to make them safer with plans for regular testing, better masks and improved ventilation. 

At a virtual news conference, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca criticized the government for not taking enough measures to make schools safer, after closing them for long periods of time earlier in the pandemic.

"We are once again in a position of having a great deal of anxiety about what's supposed to come next or what should come next," he said. 

He called on Ford to consult with families and experts on the best course of action. 

"If that ultimately means that we have to delay the reopening of schools by a few days, or a week or two, then I'm comfortable with that," he said. "But ... it will be a failure of epic proportions for Doug Ford to simply say, 'We're going to delay schools by a day or a week or two weeks or a month, and then do nothing else to make the schools better and safer for our kids and our workers.'"

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government is committed to protecting students, staff and families, but didn't give a specific date for the decision on schools opening next week. 

"Every step of the way, we have implemented the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health," Caitlin Clark said, also pointing to government measures already taken like ventilation upgrades, portable air filters, school vaccination clinics and COVID-19 tests for students.

As for Jackson, she said she's been mentally preparing for her daughter to remain home after the break -- and she has warned her daughter she may not be able to go back to school. 

“I feel like having the expectation low has helped a little bit, but I don't like the unknown -- I don't think anyone does,” Jackson said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2021.

- With files from Liam Casey

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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