Ontario’s plan to reopen schools in COVID-19 hot spots has raised concerns among parents who say the government has failed to implement safety measures just as contagious new variants of the novel coronavirus are taking hold.
The announcement, long-awaited by many parents who have been stretched thin during a month-long period of remote learning, has raised questions about just how safe it will be when in-person classes resume in COVID-19 hot spots over the next two weeks.
“I feel that I am against the wall and I have to decide between sending my kids to school and keeping my family safe,” said Fernanda Yanchapaxi, a Toronto mother of two.
“I’m not saying that I don’t want them to be back. I’m dying for them to go back to school. I just want them to be safe.”
She said she wants teachers to be mandated to wear higher-grade personal protective equipment, and for the government to impose smaller class sizes in elementary schools.
All of these, she noted, are measures teachers and advocates have been calling for since September.
As it stands, teachers and students in grades 1 to 12 are required to wear non-medical face masks inside and when physical distancing isn’t possible outdoors.
Some parents said they’d like to see teachers required to wear medical-grade masks, which scientists say seem to be more effective against variants of COVID-19 first discovered in the U.K. and South Africa.
Class sizes have been reduced in high schools since September, and many elementary classes have also shrunk, though without the hard cap of 15 students that advocates have called for.
Some parents say the emergence of contagious new variants of the coronavirus makes these issues even more pressing as the government plans to reopen schools in hot spots in the immediate future — on Feb. 16 in Toronto, Peel and York’s public health units, and Feb. 8 in all other remaining public health units.
That’s particularly true in the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, where 91 people are confirmed to have a variant of the virus first discovered in the U.K.
A Public Health Ontario study of COVID-19 cases on a single day in January found variants in 5.5 per cent of cases screened, but officials say that percentage is expected to grow quickly.
Tara Garrett, a Toronto mother of two, said there are gaps in the government plan that have convinced her to keep her kids — aged eight and 15 — learning remotely for longer, particularly due to those new variants.
“If I send my child back in these circumstances, I’m sending a message to the government that you know what, this is okay,” she said. “The fact that teachers don’t have proper PPE, the fact that teachers are not able to maintain socially distanced classrooms, the fact that kids … eat less than three feet apart from each other at their desks with their masks off.”
Recess also poses a concern, she said.
“Kids are not going to maintain a distance the whole time and the supervising staff can’t stay on top of every single child,” Garrett said.