Grade 10 student Elena Rinne can’t help but look at the number of new daily COVID-19 cases hovering around 10,000 and worry.
She is worried about going back to school next week, and has to eat lunch with 200 other students in a closed cafeteria.
She worries about the lack of safety and social distancing protocols at her school, some of her peers and teachers are not vaccinated, and students often flout the masking requirement.
But she is also concerned about the potential school closures, and the effects it could have on the mental health of her classmates and her friends “who are not safe at home and need school as an escape.”
For Rinne, it feels like early 2020 all over again.
“I am terrified of going back to school on day three, and I recently spoke to my parents about the process of transitioning to blended learning,” said Rinne, who lives in Georgina and spent her ninth grade online learning. “I don’t like online learning, but now I feel like my choice is either that or go to school and get sick.”
“I feel like there’s no real plan to make sure that if we go back to school, we’ll be safe.”
With a return to school looming amid exponentially increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, uncertainty is also growing among parents, students and staff about whether schools should resume on January 3 or whether the temporary closure will help curb the COVID numbers. It gives more students and teachers a chance to get vaccinated, reinforced, and return to school without symptoms.
Many experts, parents and students stress they want schools to stay open – but say more needs to be done to ensure schools are safe as the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads, including: free N95 masks for all students and teachers, and better ventilation in all classrooms intermittent lunch times for high school students and continuous regular quick tests for all students several times a week.
They also say parents and students who work need guaranteed sick leave so they can isolate in case of exposure.
But others say schools should be considered an “essential service” and closure should not be on the table as long as malls and gyms remain open.
“I went through the malls that day, they are packed. They are full,” said Bronwyn Allsopp, founder of the Coalition of Ontario Families against School Closures, which acts as an early childhood educator. “How can they stay open, but schools—which are essential— Can it be closed? This makes no sense.”
There is no easy answer about going back to school, says Dr. Nellie Kaplan-Mirth, a family physician in Ottawa.
“For schools that open in January, when we don’t have testing capacity, we don’t have rapid tests, we don’t have PCR tests, there’s no tracing going on, and people don’t have proper masks, it’s just that,” Kaplan-Mirth said. who says she decided to keep her 12-year-old at home in January, “we’re going to throw caution to the wind.”
“It just means that parents who can afford to keep their kids safe are going to keep their kids safe, and we’re telling everyone else we don’t really care if their kids get coronavirus. The truth is that their kids will.”
“It really became a question of the haves and the have-nots.”
Ahead of the holiday, when asked about the possibility of schools closing, Ontario Health’s chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore said they “do not see any significant impact on children’s health” with Omicron and the province “committed to keeping our schools open.”
But in just a week since that press conference, cases have doubled from 4,000 to nearly 10,000. Capacity to test for COVID-19 has been overburdened, and access to vaccine boosters has been sporadic and unfair across the county.
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Secretary Stephen Lecce, said the district has done a number of things to keep students safe in the classroom.
“Every step of the way, we have implemented the advice of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and Science Schedule — including improving ventilation in every school, deploying 70,000 portable HEPA units, high-quality masks, and thousands of student vaccine pop-ups, along with testing options. expanded and more staff hired to support safer schools,” Clark said.
“Our government has proactively deployed home PCR tests in all schools and 11 million rapid antigen tests for all students learning in schools — the only district to do both — as part of our ongoing commitment to protecting students, staff, and families.”
But, Kaplan-Myrth says, “Nothing was done to ensure that every family was given rapid tests. It was a joke to give five quick tests to each student. It was not enough. It was disgraceful that they were not given to teachers, educators and childcare providers.”
York-area mother Shamila Shakeel believes a delay of a few weeks in reopening could give the county enough time to implement changes such as a graded lunch, regular rapid testing and distribution of high-quality masks, as well as temporary closures of gyms and indoor dining in restaurants to limit its spread.
“I don’t want my children to learn online,” Shakeel said. “At the same time, I don’t want teachers and students to go back to school in unsafe conditions.”
“And with the number of cases rising, I’ve already heard some parents say they might keep their kids at home anyway.”
Allsopp, who has children with special needs, said parents worried about the new alternative have the option of choosing the school online, “but families who need in-person learning do not deserve that option being stolen from them again.”
Despite differing views, everyone agrees that the government should not wait until the last minute to make a decision – which could leave parents, students and teachers scrambling.
“I will wait a few more days to see if the government makes an announcement,” said tenth grader Ren.
“But if the numbers keep going up, I feel like I might switch to the internet. The last time I was online, it was for the safety of others, but now I worry about my safety.”