TORONTO — The number of students choosing to learn remotely come September is significantly higher in some of Ontario’s COVID-19 hot spots, as the fourth wave of the pandemic has some parents worried about the risk of infection in schools.
The Toronto District School Board – the largest board in the province – is reporting that about 14 per cent of its students have opted out of in-person learning.
The Peel District School Board – in one of the regions hardest hit by COVID-19 – says that 18 per cent of elementary students and 20 per cent of high schoolers will stay home.
Elsewhere in the province, school boards are reporting vastly different numbers.
The Limestone District School Board based out of Kingston, Ont., said only two per cent of students will learn remotely when school resumes, while the Halton District School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board both say roughly six per cent of their students have chosen the virtual learning option.
But one Ottawa-Carleton parent whose kids are headed for in-person learning said she’s second-guessing her decision due to the fourth wave of the pandemic, which is fuelled by the highly contagious Delta variant.
“We had to make the decision between virtual school and in-person school back in March,” said Kimberly Callard. “That was before Delta existed in Canada. That was before the third wave even started.”
She said she was given the chance to change her mind in May, but the school board’s wording made her think the option was only for families whose personal situations had changed.
“Our family circumstances technically still haven’t changed,” she said. “It’s the community and COVID situation that’s changed.”
Callard, who has two incoming fifth-graders and a seventh-grader, said that she’d prefer to keep her two younger kids — who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine — at home.
“It’s a hard decision, because I do think they miss having friends at school,” she said. “I think they miss the in-person interactions. But also, I want to keep them safe.”
Callard said she’s reached out to several people at the board, but has yet to hear back.
She said she’d also be happy if the Ottawa-Carleton board added some more safety measures, beyond what the province has mandated.
That’s a step the TDSB said it would take in a special meeting of the Planning and Priorities Committee this week.
For instance, the TDSB’s presentation reads: “Elementary students will continue to take breaks within cohorts with physical distancing.” The ministry has said elementary students need not stay in their cohorts during recess.
The Ministry of Education OK’d music and singing indoors “with masking encouraged where distancing cannot be maintained,” but the TDSB said it will only allow indoor singing with masks and physical distancing.
The ministry has also permitted indoor assemblies, but the TDSB said it won’t be doing them. Instead, schools can have virtual or outdoor assemblies.
The TDSB’s planning presentation — along with data from the Peel District School Board — also offers some insights into who will be returning to school in person.
In both of those boards, students at what the TDSB calls “key transition points” — junior kindergarten and Grade 9 — are more likely to opt for in-person learning.
Only nine per cent of Toronto students in those grades chose the online learning option, as did parents for 13 per cent of junior kindergarten students in Peel and 12 per cent of Grade 9 students.
– With files from Allison Jones