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'We want our kids in school': York Region parents, teachers urge increased effort to make schools safe

'This shift to remote learning is frustrating because we know it could have been avoided had the province funded and implemented safety measures at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and not half-measures,' teachers union president says
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Students in York Region and across Ontario are signing onto remote learning for the first day of school after the break today. 

The Ontario government announced Jan. 3 that schools will be closed and students will be learning virtually from Jan. 5 to 14 amid increasing cases of COVID-19 and omicron concerns. Schools are expected to re-open on Jan. 17. 

Many parents in the community say they had hoped students would return to in-person learning. 

Sandra Huh, a parent and co-chair of the advocacy group York Communities for Public Education, questioned why steps weren't taken to make schools safer for students.

“Parents are feeling very frustrated that schools are not able to open safely,” she said. “The concerns are quite considerable since the government has had two years to really make changes in schools.” 

Huh said closing schools should have been a last resort and that other measures should have been put in place 1-1/2 years ago to make sure it was safe for students. 

"We want our kids learning in person, but we want them in safe environments so that they can thrive. They’re unable to thrive when there is fear of getting ill from COVID,” she said.  

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA), shares that concern and said she hopes they will be back in the classroom in two weeks. 

“We want our kids in school. It’s incredibly important for so many reasons to have kids in classrooms and in schools. We’ve got two weeks to do everything we can to make those schools safe,” she said. 

OPSBA is calling on the Ford government to give teachers and students priority access for the vaccine doses they are eligible to receive, including boosters. 

“If we’re telling our students and staff that’s it’s important that you stay home and learn from home to help us better handle omicron, then it’s important enough that we’re going to put these things in place when you get back,” she said. 

They also ask for the government to consider providing access to PCR testing for students and staff. 

OPSBA also said that additional PPE, including N95 masks for teachers, must be made available as soon as possible and that additional guidance on which types of masks are safest should be provided. 

“We have two weeks to make all of those things happen,” Abraham said.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) echoes those requests. 

“Given the rapid spread of omicron across Ontario, today’s announcement is a safer decision than the one made last week, but additional action is still needed,” the union said in a news release Jan. 3. 

They called for N95 masks, prioritizing boosters for education workers, and access to testing, as well as HEPA filters in all classrooms and public spaces, paid sick leave, plans for staff absences, and for the government to continue monitoring cases in schools.

“This shift to remote learning is frustrating because we know it could have been avoided had the province funded and implemented safety measures at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and not half-measures,” said ETFO president Karen Brown. “We recognize the hardships that come with another round of remote learning. To ensure this is the last time we need this emergency measure, we will continue to call on the Ford government to invest in adequate infection prevention measures.”

She said they want to see students back in the classroom but only if it’s safe.

“We want to welcome students back to school as quickly as possible, but schools must be safe, and we need to see more than a press conference or two to be assured that they are,” Brown said. 

Among local parents, Huh said there is frustration that these steps haven't been taken yet and that these voices aren't being listened to. 

“The concerns are many. The disappointment and frankly the anger of many parents is very high. Nobody wants to be in this situation,” she said “I think it’s time that this government really sits down with parents…and all the stakeholders because they have yet to sit down with all the stakeholders to come up with creative solutions to some really difficult problems. It’s not an easy fix but there are measures that we could take that would be extremely effective." 

On top of physical health concerns, Huh said parents are also facing mental health concerns with remote learning. 

“Parents are not just dealing with putting your child on a computer and having them learn lessons at home. Parents are juggling mental health of their children, assisting them—especially in elementary—assisting them with online learning," she said. "If you’re older, the mental health risks are extremely high within our teenage population. We need in-person schools. We know that in-person students do better but we need them to feel safe while there and parents need to feel confident that their kids are going to not get COVID. It’s very worrying, very very worrying.”

Following the remote learning announcement, both the York Region District School Board and York Catholic District School Board shared resources for families as they prepare to go virtual, including mental health resources, as well as IT support and online learning resources. 

The boards are also providing an opportunity for families to switch from in-person to virtual learning or vice-versa when the hybrid learning model does return. 

Students in YRDSB can request to switch from in-person learning to remote learning by contacting their local school, the board said in a letter sent to families on Dec. 30. 

YCDSB is accepting requests from families who want to switch until Jan. 14. 

Julia Seeratan, a communications officer with the board, said principals have been receiving requests for both temporary and permanent switches to remote learning, however, they do not currently have numbers on how many students are in each model. 

Students are currently scheduled to return to in-person learning on Jan. 17 depending on the COVID-19 situation.