Most Ontario school boards have returned to in-person learning today; a handful are grappling with a winter storm which hit parts of southern Ontario.
The province shifted to online learning after the winter break, so schools not shuttered by snow will be reopening for the first time in nearly a month.
In that time, skyrocketing COVID-19 cases overwhelmed Ontario’s testing system and led to staff shortages across the workforce, prompting policy changes that will also affect the situation in schools.
Gold-standard PCR tests are no longer available to the general public, and are now being saved for those at higher risk of serious illness, so the province is only offering them to students who develop symptoms of COVID-19 while at school.
The Ministry of Education is instead sending two rapid antigen tests home with each student, to be used if they develop symptoms outside of the classroom.
Parents will no longer be notified if someone in their child’s class tests positive for the virus.
Instead, the province plans to post information about absenteeism online starting next week, and parents will be informed if 30 per cent of a school’s staff and students are absent for any reason.
The province is also sending N95 masks to teachers and three-ply medical masks to students.
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario said educators have mixed feelings about the return to the classroom.
“I have heard from members across the province who are experiencing a range of emotions as they prepare to return to in-person learning or continue to support students who cannot be accommodated through remote learning,” ETFO President Karen Brown said in a written statement.
“Some members are enthusiastic and feel safe, others are cautiously optimistic, and some are anxious.”
Erika Lopes, a senior kindergarten and Grade 1 teacher with the Lambton-Kent District School Board, said that while she misses seeing her students in person, the idea of returning to the classroom has her stressed.
“I don’t remember the last time I’ve actually slept through a night, just because I’m a very big stresser and worrier. So it’s all playing through my mind,” she said. “And when I’m laying there at nighttime, I’m thinking: Okay, how am I going to do this?”
Kindergarten students aren’t required to wear masks and keeping a physical distance while teaching is hard – particularly, she said, because her board’s plan to deal with staff absences is to merge classes.
“On one side, you’re telling us keep them all apart, don’t let them play together yet,” she said. “On the other side, they’re saying, ‘Yep, we have to put them together.”’