Ontario families scramble as Omicron forces 2-week school closure

Click to play video: 'Ontario schools moving to remote learning amid Omicron surge'
Ontario schools moving to remote learning amid Omicron surge
WATCH ABOVE: The provincial government has announced schools will move to online learning until at least Jan. 17 in an effort to slow the spread of Omicron. Erica Vella reports – Jan 3, 2022

Jake Goodman really enjoyed his science class.

Just before the holiday break, the Grade 10 student at Northview Heights Secondary School in Toronto was dissecting frogs, burning magnesium and making carbon dioxide.

Now, Jake can’t look forward to returning to school given that as of Wednesday in Ontario, he and millions of other students will shift to remote learning for two weeks as part of the government’s plan to limit the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

“You can’t do the things on a computer that you can do in class. We’ve been doing science labs and chemistry,” the 15-year-old told Global News.

“You can’t do that online — you just have websites that you look at and Google slideshows. … It gets tiresome (and) it feels like it’s just the same thing over and over.”

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Ontario schools go back online

Starting Wednesday, all publicly funded and private schools will move to remote learning until at least Jan. 17, subject to public health trends and operational considerations, the Ontario government announced Monday.

School buildings will be allowed to stay open for child-care operations, including emergency child care; for in-person teaching for students with special education needs who can’t learn remotely; and for staff who are unable to deliver quality instruction from home.

Furthermore, the province said that during the remote-learning period, free emergency child care will be provided for school-aged children of health care and other eligible frontline workers.

The delay of in-person learning came as part of a series of other measures introduced by Premier Doug Ford’s government, like the closure of indoor dining and indoor gym use until at least Jan. 26. The measures begin Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. ET.

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Click to play video: 'Health experts say provinces neglecting key advice to control COVID-19 spreading in schools'
Health experts say provinces neglecting key advice to control COVID-19 spreading in schools

“It’s absolute devastation. I think it’s disgraceful,” said Lauren Bondar, a mother of three speaking about the shift away from in-person learning.

Bondar, who lives in Toronto with her husband, and their children, ages six, four and 18 months, said the school closures feel like “deja vu.”

“I think that’s why so many Ontario parents, especially working mothers, are triggered by announcements like today because these closures generally fall on the moms,” she said Monday.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Ford explains decision to move schools online'
COVID-19: Ford explains decision to move schools online

Bondar said she was waiting for the government to announce new measures, but was shocked that no measures to protect schools were announced. She added that the press conference had her feeling that her kids will be at home longer than the Jan. 17 return to in-person learning date.

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“I don’t think anybody thinks this closure or shift to virtual learning will last only two weeks,” she said.

‘How do these two weeks get anything better?’

Jake’s father, Rob Goodman, told Global News he would’ve liked to have seen Ford’s government make Monday’s announcement sooner to give parents more time to adjust.

“It doesn’t seem to me like the decisions are getting made fast enough or with enough clarity that it helps me as a parent and as someone who has to look after a business and do things,” he said.

“It just seems to me like it’s done very haphazardly, and after two years, I’m surprised.”

Jake Goodman (left) and his father Rob Goodman. Jake is not looking forward to another round of virtual learning, he says. Lauren Goodman/photo

Students were set to return to in-person learning on Wednesday, a date the Ontario government announced last week as questions swirled regarding the return of indoor schooling. Students were originally supposed to go back to class on Monday.

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Bondar’s theory of prolonged school closures is one that Andrea Moffat, a mother of a six-year-old, agrees with.

For the Scarborough small business owner, Moffat said the closures are a hard pill to swallow. During the press conference, the premier was asked if he could guarantee schools will be back in two weeks, and he did not provide a definitive answer.

“How do these two weeks get anything better?” Moffat observed.

When asked to elaborate on how she felt about the handling of school going virtual and last-minute decisions, Moffat said she wasn’t surprised, but is beyond frustrated.

“It’s hard to have the appropriate decorum to articulate it without unprofessional emotion,” she said.

Moffat added that she knows she is lucky to work from home. Yet when her son is learning from home, there is an increased burden on her to help him, and if she doesn’t, there is a feeling of failure both professionally and as a parent.

“This is not just a balancing act or juggling. You cannot homeschool small children successfully doing virtual learning and have your career,” she said.

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“This is my career, something I’ve worked hard to build, something many moms have worked hard to build, and then we’re expected to take an unplanned pause, it just doesn’t work like that.”

Click to play video: 'Ontario could see ‘hundreds of thousands’ of COVID-19 cases per day, Ford says'
Ontario could see ‘hundreds of thousands’ of COVID-19 cases per day, Ford says

During the presser, Ford outwardly gave support to his Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, who has come under fire from parents and advocates alike for not acting quickly enough during the pandemic.

“I want to give a shout out to Minister [Stephen] Lecce. I always say he’s the best Minister of Education in the country,” Ford said. “He’s done everything in his power to make sure that schools can move forward throughout this whole pandemic.”

Moffat took exception with Ford heaping praise on Lecce, noting that she didn’t understand how during an announcement of school closures the premier had the “gall” to talk about the successes of his education minister.

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“I am consistently flabbergasted by what an awful and horrific education minister experience this has been,” she said.

Infections in Ontario continue spike

Ford’s cabinet met virtually late Sunday afternoon to discuss further possible measures to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, which has driven daily infections to record highs in the province recently.

On Monday, Ontario reported 13,578 new infections, 248 people in intensive care with COVID-19, and 1,232 people with a COVID-related illness, up from 1,117 reported the previous day.

The province said that with such a rapid rise in cases, hospitalizations will also rise quickly.

“For example, 50,000 cases per day would mean 500 hospital admissions per day, which is greater than the peak daily hospitalizations of 265 per day from last spring, when hospitals were under significant strain during the third wave of the pandemic,” the government said in a news release.

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Ford said at the news conference that Ontario is “going to get hit like a tsunami” and to “brace for impact because some people don’t understand the volume that’s going to hit us.”

Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, told Global News that the province must do better to ensure schools stay open permanently.

“We’ve been recommending that (COVID-19) vaccines be mandatory … to go to school, (and) it should be mandatory to be vaccinated if you’re eligible,” she said.

“So there’s a lot of work to be done in the education system in the next two weeks to make that reopening a permanent reopening: more support for staff, more N95 masks, more smaller class sizes. … We’ve got to make sure that this time, we get it right and that we’re not closing schools again after this.”

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As for Jake, he’s not sure if in-person learning will resume on Jan. 17, but he’s hopeful it does so he can get back to doing what he enjoys at school.

“It’s nice because I can work with my hands,” he said.

“It’s better than sitting at a computer all day with my feet up, staring at the same four walls.”

— with files from Gabby Rodrigues and Ryan Rocca

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