Ontario parents in limbo as B.C., Alberta schools resume amid Omicron wave

Click to play video: '‘It’s very hard for the kids’: Frustration grows over volatile COVID-19 school measures'
‘It’s very hard for the kids’: Frustration grows over volatile COVID-19 school measures
WATCH: Despite the surge of Omicron infections and a lack of immunity for kids, British Columbia and Alberta students have resumed in-person learning. It's a relief for some parents and children. But as Heather Yourex-West reports, there are no guarantees schools will stay open – Jan 10, 2022

Susel Munoz wants her children back in school in Ontario next week – but only if it’s safe enough.

Come Jan. 17, Ontario is scheduled to have students return to in-person learning, joining British Columbia and Alberta, which sent students back to classrooms on Monday.

But with the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in Canada, Munoz worries for the health of her four children — all of whom have autism — should they return to class.

Click to play video: 'Dr. Isaac Bogoch talks school safety and hospital staffing concerns'
Dr. Isaac Bogoch talks school safety and hospital staffing concerns

First off, she wants to make sure there are enough staff to care for her kids as they need extra support.

“If we don’t have them, then it’s impossible for the kids to even go to school because one teacher can’t do all the work,” she said.

Munoz, who lives in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood, added that being a low-income family also puts them in a tough spot.

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“We rely on schools to provide for our children because we have to work to make ends meet so we can support our families,” she said.

“But without childminding, without schools open, it is really challenging to do that – but at the same time, we are in between because if it’s not safe, then there’s not much you can do. You’d rather pick the safety over anything else.”

Susel Munoz (centre) is seen with her four children in this file photo. Munoz wants to see her children back in school on Jan. 17, but only if she feels it’s safe enough for them. Enarxis Mesa Designs photo

On Jan. 3, the Ontario government announced it was delaying the return to in-person learning to at least Jan. 17 in order to limit the impact of Omicron.

In the meantime, students are learning virtually while watching their peers elsewhere in the country make the return to school.

In British Columbia and Alberta, students returned to the classroom on Monday from holiday break with new restrictions in place.

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As part of the plan in B.C., students will have staggered start and break times to reduce crowding in common areas, and three-layer masks must be worn in indoor areas at all times. B.C. warned there may be functional school closures due to staff illness, but that officials will no longer send COVID-19 exposure notices unless there are significant dips in attendance.

In Alberta, the government is providing school divisions with shipments of rapid test kits and medical-grade masks in addition to previous measures, which include requirements for masking, physical distancing, cohorting and enhanced sanitization. The government will also continue to work with schools districts on shifts to at-home learning when needed.

Like Munoz, Nigil Haroon also wants to see his 10-year-old son return to his in-person Grade 5 class in Toronto next Monday.

Haroon told Global News he hopes in-person learning isn’t postponed again as full-time virtual learning isn’t sufficient for his son.

“They need to develop, they need that interaction with the teacher, they need that interaction with peers to really get the full educational experience,” he said.

“Kids have missed that in-person learning quite a bit. It has affected their development, (and) it’s also affected their quality of education.”

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Click to play video: 'Ontario faces pressure to reopen schools as virtual learning takes toll on kids, parents'
Ontario faces pressure to reopen schools as virtual learning takes toll on kids, parents

Since the announcement, Ontario has introduced several measures to improve safety at schools.

On Saturday, the government announced it has added extra vaccination clinics in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area to provide accelerated access to COVID-19 booster shots for education and child-care staff. The measure came after Ontario prioritized them for booster shots two days earlier.

Furthermore, Ontario is providing optional non-fit-tested N95 masks to all education and child-care staff, more “high-quality three-ply” cloth masks for students and children, 3,000 more HEPA filters in addition to the more than 70,000 already in schools, new screening requirements, new time-limited cohorting protocols and $1.6 billion in resources for school boards to protect against COVID-19.

“Our priority is getting students back to class, which is why our government is continuously investing in safer schools through enhanced ventilation, quality PPE (personal protective equipment), and additional vaccine clinics offering targeted appointments for education staff,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement to Global News.

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“We’ll continue to take action to keep students and staff as safe as possible, with a focus on getting students back to class.”

With the scheduled return to classes approaching, one figure that is concerning for Dr. Anna Banerji is the vaccination rate among children five to 11 years of age.

In Ontario, that number sits at 47 per cent partially vaccinated and 3.5 per cent fully inoculated. Among that age group nationally, 45 per cent are partially vaccinated and two per cent are fully vaccinated.

Banerji calls for parents with children eligible to get vaccinated to get the shot for added protection in school.

“Kids and most Canadians living in cities will be exposed (to COVID-19) in the next little while,” said Banerji, a pediatric disease specialist at the University of Toronto.

“The big risk is really sending an unvaccinated kid to school. If the parents want to do something proactive, they should go get their kids vaccinated.”

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Munoz has taken Banerji’s advice and is getting her children vaccinated against COVID-19.

However, she would like to see all education staff be required to get inoculated in order to make schools as safe as possible right now.

“We need to make vaccines mandatory for school staff, teachers and support staff first and foremost,” she said.

“Our kids are getting vaccinated, but still if people that are surrounding them and supporting them in schools are not vaccinated, it is definitely an issue for our kids in particular because they are the more vulnerable groups.”

— with files from Simon Little and The Canadian Press

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