Children in Ontario will return to in-person learning on Jan. 17 following an extended break from physical classrooms, provincial officials have confirmed.
Schools in the province were originally slated to return to in-person learning on Jan. 3.
However the province pushed that date to Jan. 5, saying an extra two days would give them time to provide N95 masks to staff and to deploy 3,000 more HEPA filter units.
Then the government announced last week that it would have kids learn remotely until at least Jan. 17 due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the province.
Premier Doug Ford said on Jan. 3 that a return to modified Step 2 restrictions and remote learning would help keep the health-care system from being overwhelmed and would give the province time to get more booster shots out to the population.
On Monday evening, Ford’s office confirmed that elementary and high school kids will return to in-person classes on Jan. 17. His office did not say why it was taking the decision.
One parent who has been campaigning for schools to reopen told CP24 that she is elated kids will soon be back in classrooms.
“I’m very, very thrilled to hear this news. I think it’s definitely what we need to hear,” Bronwen Alsop said.
The move follows calls from a number of groups to get kids back in the classrooms, though some stakeholders have remained divided about how quickly that should happen.
“The question that needed to be asked everyday with a response from government is what is taking place to make schools safer to reopen and stay open? Without those answers, I don’t see what makes January 17th any better given what is happening in other cities/jurisdictions,” Dr. Andrew Boozary, the head of the social medicine program at the University Health Network, said in a tweet.
Hospitalizations have skyrocketed in Ontario in recent weeks, driven by the more infectious Omicron variant. The province reported Monday that there are now at least 2,467 patients with COVID-19 in Ontario hospitals, with 438 in intensive care.
Teacher unions have called for a number of safety measures, such as N95 masks for education workers, HEPA filters in all classrooms and the availability of rapid antigen tests. The unions and opposition critics have criticized the government for not investing in the safety measures sooner.
In recent weeks, education workers have received prioritization for booster shots ahead of the return to classrooms.
However the government also recently said that it would no longer report COVID-19 infection numbers among students and staff.
Teacher unions and school boards said Monday evening they had not been notified about the decision yet.
Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation President Karen Littlewood told CP24 she was “surprised” to learn about the decision on Twitter.
“I don’t think that’s how we should be informed about the return to in-class learning,” Littlewood said. “I really, I think many educators feel very disrespected.”
She said that while booster clinics for education workers have been held in the GTA, education workers in other parts of the province still can’t get an appointment until February. She also pointed out that school-aged children are not yet eligible for booster shots, thought by many to be necessary in order to have good protection against the Omicron variant.
“You’re not allowed to dine in a restaurant right now, but students can dine in a classroom at lunchtime or in a cafeteria,” Littlewood said.
She called the decision “sudden” and said she understood that the government would reevaluate at the end of the two-week period.
“I’m not sure what they’re reevaluating because unless I missed something today, I think the ICU numbers are up and not coming down,” Littlewood said. “So again, what are the metrics that the government is using in order to make this type of decision?
“We want to be in the classroom, we want to see students. That’s the model that we really support – the OSSTF and other education workers – but the schools need to be safe. And are they? That’s the question that I have back to the government.”
Other teacher unions also weighed in.
“Students, parents, and educators all want schools to return to in-person IF it is safe to do so. Is that your final answer @fordnation and @Sflecce? Schools are safe this time??,” Barb Dobrowolski, provincial president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association tweeted Monday night after seeing the news about a return to in-person learning.
In addition to concerns about COVID-19 spread in schools, there have been concerns that the same staff shortages currently plaguing many industries because of COVID-19 infection and isolation protocols could affect schools as well.
Earlier Monday the province said that an agreement with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation will allow retired teachers to be re-employed in the public school system for 95 days until the end of June. That’s nearly double the previous limit of 50 days.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement that the change will help smooth both remote and in-person learning.