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Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa parents call for full week, in-class schooling in the fall

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, says she's in favour of a full return to in-class schooling come September.
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, says she's in favour of a full return to in-class schooling come September. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa’s top doctor joined a horde of parents Thursday night to call for a full, five-day-a-week return to school in September even amid lingering risks to students from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), the city’s largest school board, held a special meeting Thursday night to give staff direction on possible models to restart school in the fall.

Though the decision on whether students are back in the classroom, learning from home or some hybrid model falls to the Ontario Ministry of Education, OCDSB and other school boards around the province have flexibility on the specifics of each model.

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Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, joined Thursday evening’s meeting to provide Ottawa Public Health’s perspective on the issue.

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Etches gave her support for a return to a full, five-day school week in September, echoing calls earlier in the week from Alex Munter, the CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

Though she acknowledged she does not have any specific expertise in how to operate a school, she said the risks of the pandemic must be balanced with the impacts of our measures to mitigate it.

Ottawa parents spoke Thursday night about how drastically the at-home schooling has negatively affected their children.

Parents came out in force to speak against the board’s initial proposal for a hybrid return to school that would’ve seen separate cohorts of students in class two days each week with Wednesdays reserved for cleaning.

Of the 30 delegations signed up to speak at Thursday evening’s school board meeting, the vast majority of parents expressed a desire to return to a full, five-day-a-week format.

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Most parents described a decline in their child’s education since Ontario schools closed in mid-March.

The scramble to implement online learning had proven haphazard, they said, especially for students in primary school who lacked the ability to properly engage over digital platforms.

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Some described a social and mental decline in their children: kids who were previously bright and excited are now facing bouts of depression and anxiety.

Despite the lingering risk of the coronavirus in Ottawa, parents saw the prospect of their kids not returning to the structure, stability and social interactions of school in the fall as a worse outcome.

“Denying kids their education is the greater risk,” said Chris Mallinos, dad to a six-year-old son.

Even Sara Atkins, who told the board her child is severely immunocompromised, was adamant that his long-term well-being meant being in school as much as possible.

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“All the kids need to go back to school,” she said.

Etches noted that any return to classrooms carries a risk of infection for staff and children.

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“We cannot completely avoid the introduction of COVID-19 into schools,” she said. Instead, she said the return to class should be viewed through a lens of what is “as safe as possible.”

But it’s not just the kids whose well-being would be at risk should in-person school not resume in the fall.

Many parents told trustees they were at a “breaking point” and could not sustain the at-home learning format.

A hybrid model, which would put extra financial and emotional strain on parents to find care for their children as they attempt to get back to work, would only contribute to family stress.

Parents also noted the economic and gendered impacts of home education.

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Even in families that have two parents in the home, continuing to facilitate virtual learning in the long-term might require one parent to quit their job — a role that oftentimes falls to women, numerous delegates pointed out.

And that’s often the privileged scenario. Kayla Cseh, a single mother, said she feels forced to choose between working and putting food on the table or properly supporting her daughter’s education.

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After hearing from the delegations, OCDSB director of education Camille Williams-Taylor noted that the board’s plans for returning to school are constantly evolving and acknowledged the overwhelming support for a full return.

With Ontario asking school boards to be flexible but not yet committing to a firm rollout plan for September, Williams-Taylor noted in a presentation that the OCDSB must plan for multiple eventualities.

Hybrid models and virtual learning approaches must be considered as a worst-case scenario, depending on how the province is able to flatten the infection curve. Special attention would be paid to improving the online experience, however, should that be necessary.

The province is expected to give a firm direction on the reopening model for schools by Aug. 4.

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