Ontario families feel relief, concern when schools reopen

Relief – but also skepticism, worries and questions.

News there Ontario schools will reopen Monday for personal learning came with a mix of emotions for parents.

Mississauga mother Alexa Barkley said she is “nervous” about sending her teens – 16, 15 and 13 – back to school because of the general increase in COVID-19 cases.

“I’m scared – but at the same time, I understand the benefits, especially from a mental health perspective, of having kids with their friends,” said Barkley, a member of the Peel District School Board’s parent involvement committee.

Monday evening the star broke the news that the province was to open schools for personal learning for two million students on January 17, after they were forced to learn online after the holidays.

Some parents had wondered if the province would stick to the date of January 17, when the school was originally supposed to be only two days late and resume on January 5th.

Then Prime Minister Doug Ford – who warned of a “tsunami” of COVID-19 cases – said children would learn online until at least January 17th.

The province has begun distributing N95 masks to all school staff, additional HEPA air filters, and the announced priority vaccine clinics for education staff.

It is still uncertain when and how many rapid and laboratory-based PCR tests will be available in schools, which unions and boards have called for.

“We want to be ready – academically, absolutely – and everything else” for children to return to class, “said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. “We have time to be ready and, as we have said all along, we want children back and will do everything we can to keep them safe.”

While boards are waiting for information on tests, the other government initiatives are “all good things,” she said. “The vast majority of boards have received (the N95 masks) and they have until Monday to get them into schools, which is not unaffordable.”

Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Toronto, said the province “balances two different risks – the risk of children getting COVID and the risk of children being online for extended periods of time.”

Ontario students have been out of school longer than anyone else in North America, and experts have warned of the impact on their mental health and well-being.

“Things have been done to improve the situation and make (the schools) safer – masks, HEPA filters and improved ventilation,” she said. “But the most important thing is to vaccinate.”

She said the government should have made a greater effort earlier to get more children vaccinated.

“There will be COVID” in schools, she said, adding that in the United States “it is the unvaccinated children who are at risk.”

“My concern is the unvaccinated children” in primary school, as less than half of children aged five to 11 have been shot, she said. They became eligible in late November.

From Monday d. 47 percent of Toronto children five to 11 had received at least one shot of the vaccine. Among teenagers, the vaccination rate is around 90 per cent.

For those who end up with COVID, “most will be fine, but there is a small amount who will not be,” Banerji said. “You reduce the risk of severity by getting children vaccinated,” she said, adding, “it’s up to the parents.”

The Toronto District School Board, the nation’s largest, said it has received about 600,000 N95 masks to date and sent them out to schools and has more than 16,000 HEPA filters, enough for every classroom in use.

Barkley said she will decide whether to send her children – all double-vaccinated – back to school depending on the availability of distance learning in the next few weeks. The province has urged boards to accommodate families who are insecure.

She said she was concerned that the province was no longer tracking COVID cases in schools, saying “it takes control completely out of my hands because I do not want the information.”

And she’s worried about her two elders going to high schools, where students pack times to eat lunch, noting “there are a lot of kids in the hallway with masks off.”

Marie Tattersall and her daughter Sydney, outside King George Junior Public School in Toronto, in October.

In Toronto, Marie Tattersall says “there is no substitute for personal learning,” but plans to keep her 11-year-old daughter at home until this wave of infections passes. Her whole family had COVID during the holidays, but she says it is not clear what immunity it provides.

Tattersall also wants cases tracked, as well as testing and air quality monitors for classrooms.

Kingston's mother Lia De Pauw, with sons Thorben, 7, and Isaak, 22 months. "Can we continue to do things to reduce the risk?  Yes.  But it does not require schools to be closed,"

Meanwhile in Kingston, Lia De Pauw said she is “happy” that schools are reopening.

“If our goals are children and their best, I think schools are the best place for children to be during the pandemic. It’s low risk for COVID,” she said.

“The only way we are not going to risk is if we lock children inside the home and it will also have a wide range of health problems for children,” said the single mother of two aged seven and 22. months.

“Could we continue to do things to reduce the risk? Yes. But it does not require schools to be closed,” said De Pauw, who works in local public health, adding that closed schools put a lot of strain on parents.

Boards are concerned about staffing, as teachers must be off work when they become ill, or to care for a sick family member or isolate themselves if exposed to COVID.

The York Region District School Board said schools may face challenges in obtaining compensation coverage.

“There may be cases where classrooms or schools are required to close for personal learning and move to virtual learning for a period of time,” spokeswoman Christina Choo-Hum said. “Schools will notify families as soon as possible when this is the case.”

At the Peel District School Board, spokesman Malon Edwards said, “We are making plans to keep students and staff safe when students return to school, including preparation for absences that may be due to teachers following the isolation procedures set by the province. We will share relevant information with our staff and families in the coming days. “

The Toronto government said while the ministry has proposed rotating, scheduled, remote online days for schools, if necessary, up to one day a week, “at this point we are still considering whether this would be necessary and / or possible.”

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