Ontario educators and families are scrambling after the province’s 11th hour decision to close schools for in-person learning and move students online for two weeks as COVID-19 cases continue to increase.
The sudden pivot, which begins on Wednesday when classes resume after winter break, has frustrated many and amplified calls for the province to do more to ensure safe schools reopen.
“We were hoping to arrive by January 5th and that we would be able to keep the schools open for the kids. Obviously, it’s not safe to do this and it’s not safe to do it now, ”said Cathy Abraham, President of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.
However, “we have two weeks to do something,” she said. “We hope the government will take these two weeks and not spare a dime” – as Prime Minister Doug Ford promised in a speech from Queen’s Park on Monday – and get N95 masks in schools, will include the teachers in the now limited PCR testing regulations and will add the COVID vaccine to the list of mandatory injections for students.
The government’s announcement was surprising, especially since last Thursday Dr. Kieran Moore, the chief medical officer of health, assured Ontario schools would reopen for in-person learning on Wednesday. But on Monday, Ford reversed the course, ordering schools to switch to virtual learning until at least January 17.
The move has already prompted a parent-led group Ontario Families Coalition, which has fought to keep schools open, to create a Go Fund Me page to raise money for a lawsuit.
Hamilton’s mother Jennifer Abbatiello says distance learning isn’t working for her boys – a nine-year-old son with autism and a seven-year-old – so she will take them out of the virtual classroom.
“I don’t work with them remotely because it impacts their mental health,” said Abbatiello, who said schools “should be seen as essential.”
Abbatiello quit his job during the first lockdown to help his boys go to school. She has recently started working from home again, but “will have to stop given these closures and the lack of extended family to help or other means of childcare, especially not on such short notice.”
Erin Pieper and her husband are frontline healthcare workers in hospitals and are now ‘scrambling’ to each other with no child care provided for their 5 and 7 year old children. She contacted the Toronto emergency day care center they used to use, but won’t know until Tuesday if there are spaces.
“If they don’t open on Wednesday, one of us will have to stay home after work in the hospital (to) take care of our children,” said Pieper, who is a social worker and whose husband is a pharmacist. “I am incredibly frustrated that the Ford government waited until the last minute to make this announcement and failed to give parents time to prepare for the school closings.”
Toronto’s public and Catholic school boards say many students already had shared devices last year, but those who need them should contact their school.
In a letter to parents on Monday evening, the Toronto District School Board said its priority remained to support student mental health and well-being and to provide a meaningful learning experience. In the next few days, teachers will contact students to make sure everyone is set up on the e-learning platform, such as Brightspace or Google Classroom. TDSB elementary school students have until January 7 to switch from in-person to virtual learning, while high school students can do so between January 5 and 7.
The TDSB says daycare centers in schools can continue to operate during this time, but parents must confirm with the operator. During this time, before and after school programs will be closed until the return of in-person learning. The council is awaiting further information on the availability of emergency childcare services for 4-12 year olds in its schools.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which has called for a delayed restart of in-person learning so that additional protections can be put in place, called the province’s announcement on Monday “Safer decision” than that of last week. But more is needed, says the union representing Ontario’s 83,000 public elementary school teachers, substitute teachers and education professionals.
“The extension is good, but I’m still hesitant about 17 (January) and if we can resume in-person learning at that time,” said ETFO President Karen Brown. “Face-to-face learning is the best and the fairest way for students to learn, but it has to be safe. ”
Likewise, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, which represents 45,000 elementary and secondary teachers, says more needs to be done. The two unions are calling on the province to ensure that all educators have N95 masks, that everyone who works or attends school is vaccinated if eligible, prioritize access to booster injections for educators, install HEPA filters in all classrooms and shared spaces, and provide faster testing. They also want the province to continue monitoring cases of COVID-19 in schools.
“It is incredibly frustrating that this decision was not made much sooner,” said Barb Dobrowolski, President of OECTA, adding that educators, parents and students need more time to prepare. “It left everyone in shock”
Until Monday, teachers felt “a huge fear” of contracting COVID if they returned to in-person learning, she said. “Suddenly they are in turmoil again because now they have to jostle each other, pivot, towards virtual teaching, which nobody likes.”
“Making this change is difficult, it takes time and people weren’t given enough warning to properly prepare for it,” she said. At this point in the pandemic, many teachers are qualified to move courses online, but some may tackle new course materials and have not had time to adapt their materials to online platforms, a she declared. “It’s hard to say how quickly this will start. “