By Sue Tiffin
School’s not out for summer, but it won’t be in-person again for the majority of elementary and high school students throughout the province until a new school year in September.
“To best protect Ontario families from the fast growing B.1.617.2 variant, and to allow for higher rates of vaccination of students, staff, and families, the Ontario government has made the difficult decision to continue with remote learning for all elementary and secondary students across the province for the remainder of this school year,” reads a June 2 press release from the provincial government. “This will allow the province to continue its focus on accelerating COVID-19 vaccinations to support a safer summer and return to in-person learning in September for the 2021-22 school year.”
Premier Doug Ford made the announcement June 2 after considering advice from the province’s science table, which said schools could be safely opened in some regions, and almost a week after seeking guidance through questions posed in a letter to medical experts, school officials and education unions.
“I know this is difficult, very difficult, news,” said Ford. “It was a hard choice to make, but I will not, I repeat, I will not, take unnecessary risks with our children right now. The fact is, we’re fighting a third wave driven by variants and unlike the original strains, we know that some of the variants we’re fighting right now are more dangerous for children. It can make younger people very, very sick. And we also know that until we get more students and teachers vaccinated, outdoor activities are safest right now.”
The government expects to “reach all youth aged 12 and over who want a vaccine with a first dose before the end of June and with a second dose by the end of August 2021.”
Ford said the decision to not open in-person learning in schools in June would allow kids “to safely enjoy camps and outdoor activities this summer,” making a safe return to school in September.
According to modelling presented by the province’s science advisory table, an increase of six to 11 per cent could be seen in the number of new daily COVID-19 cases if schools reopened.
“It is unknown how many of these would be the new, more dangerous B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India, which has entered the province through Canada’s borders,” said the province’s press release.
During this third lockdown, the number of daily cases has dropped from more than 4,800 cases in mid-April to 699 cases last week when the announcement was made.
Almost 1.5 million elementary and secondary students in Ontario have been learning at home since mid-April, when the province went into a third lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some students – about 500,000 – have been learning at home by choice since the beginning of the school year. Students enrolled in what the board describe as ‘special education’ programs have had the option to attend school in-person continuously.
According to spokesperson Sinead Fegan, Trillium Lakelands District School Board found out about the plan for schools to remain generally closed at the same time as others in the province.
“Shortly before the announcement, several provincial news outlets suggested that the decision would be for students to remain in online learning,” said Fegan. “However, school boards did not receive the official announcement until the premier’s press conference.”
According to Fegan, “Trillium Lakelands District School Board schools will continue to provide the best learning experience possible while students engage in online learning from home for the remainder of the school year.”
Reaction from parents across the province, who were long-awaiting an announcement about the remaining month of school, was mixed. While some spoke out saying they were not engaged in online learning and were starting an early summer after a difficult year, others were disappointed to not have the in-person closure their students wanted with teachers and friends. Some parents said it made sense to not return for a few weeks of school – especially if it might result in increased COVID-19 cases – after most grades had been inputted, while others struggled with childcare or working from home and supporting students who were learning at home.
Cindy-Jo Nesbitt’s kids are in high school. Walker is in Grade 10 at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School, and Sterling is in Grade 12 at Ontario Hockey Academy.
“I was disappointed to hear the students were not returning,” she said. “The statement of getting all teachers vaccinated seemed to be redundant as I feel most adults have their first shot of a vaccine already. Frustrated that people can go golfing and socialize, but our kids don’t have the same opportunity to reconnect with peers.”
Walker has been online for 90 per cent of the school year, said Nesbitt. He started the year learning from home, but returned to in-person learning for socialization, and then schools closed again.
“The school year has been filled with frustrations, arguments, and a constant battle for Wi-Fi,” said Nesbitt.
As Nesbitt’s kids are older, nothing changes in their home with the announcement, she said. They’re “just trying to push through for the next couple weeks at home.”
“The pandemic has pushed us all to our limits,” she said. “I’m proud of the parents/guardians who have been by their children through this all. The students need a large round of applause for being who they are. Teachers need high fives for being present for our kids’ education. But in the end, we all just want to go back to normal – whatever ‘normal’ may look like now.”
Lindsay Hughes’ kids are in Grade 1 and Grade 4.
“It’s been a bit hectic,” she said of the school year. “The kids having to wear masks all day, and not being able to [actually] socialize with friends.”
Her kids began school at home until after Thanksgiving when they returned to in-person after first choosing school at home, and have been back to online learning since April.
“We have been doing online – it’s been a bit of a struggle,” she said. “We do not go on every day. I’ve just decided it isn’t worth the frustration for them and myself. It’s hard to sit online all day being ages six and nine, so I can’t blame them.”
Hughes said she is happy they will be staying home for the remainder of the year.
“If the cases are going to rise for them to just be back for three weeks, I don’t find it worth it,” she said. “I would much rather them have a good summer and be able to have friends around more. If they did go back, and cases were to rise who knows what it would look like for September.”
Amanda Clement’s son is in senior kindergarten. The school year for them, she said, has been “unpredictable,” with two provincial lockdowns throughout the school year resulting in students “bouncing from in-school to online.”
Since April, they have been doing some online learning, alongside workbooks they have at home.
“I feel it should have been a regional approach to go back to in-class,” she said. “Our community has had low, if not zero cases for a while now. I always felt safe for my son to be in-person learning. The majority of his class time was spent outdoors. He is missing class structure, social settings with peers and is struggling to stay focussed with the online type learning.”
While Clement said it doesn’t affect or change her life much, her son is disappointed.
“He was hoping for in-class learning,” she said. “He enjoys school, he benefits from the structure of the class setting and he misses seeing other children other than his two-year-old brother.”
Despite the disappointment in the announcement, Clement said they won’t cut the school year short for an early summer.
“We will continue to do what we can,” she said.
Fegan said, “It is important to note that support is available to students who may need assistance from staff, including from our Student Services Attendance Counsellors. We ask that parents/guardians contact the classroom teacher or the school to request assistance if needed.”
During last week’s announcement, Ford also suggested schools hold outdoor graduation events for all students before the end of June.
“Students have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic, with important milestones like graduation ceremonies impacted,” reads the government’s press release. “Ontario students deserve this positive conclusion to their academic journey, safely. The government will allow school boards to invite graduating students in elementary schools, by class, and secondary schools, by homeroom/quadmestered class, to return to school in June for a short, outdoor celebration, where physical distancing is possible.”
TLDSB graduation plans have been in place at schools since April 30. TLDSB graduations will remain virtual this year, according to Fegan.
“Graduations take a lot of time and careful planning to put in place,” she said. “TLDSB administrators have had school graduation plans in place for several weeks.”
The Ontario Principals’ Council responded quickly to the announcement, making a statement within hours of Ford’s press conference, noting that school staff had already made plans in May and June that follow public health guidelines to celebrate graduates, including through ‘drive-thrus,’ virtually recorded sessions or other events that don’t require large gatherings.
“Regardless of the format, considerable time and care has been put into planning this milestone,” reads the statement. “Asking schools to change direction and organize an outdoor event, while social distancing restrictions are still in place, is impractical and unrealistic. It would also lead to additional costs – to cancel and plan for a new event – that schools do not have the budget to accommodate at this time.
“Since March 2020, schools, boards and educators have been asked to ‘pivot’ numerous times, reverting from in-person, to virtual, to hybrid learning models. The education system has been turned on its head, and the learning environment has undergone numerous changes and revisions. And in every case, educators have responded as the professionals they are, doing what was necessary to comply with medical advice, emergency measures, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and ongoing changes in government policy. Now we are being asked to revert and pivot again, to cancel graduation plans already in place and organize outdoor events amid social distancing restrictions. This is simply not possible or practical. It is unrealistic and disrespectful to Ontario educators to expect such a considerable shift in planning at this point in the school year.”
Since Ford’s announcement, the Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board have confirmed there will not be outdoor functions this year, with ceremonies occurring virtually as planned.
TLDSB said more information about the end of the school year and plans for next year will be available to parents toward the end of the school year.
“There will be opportunities for students to drop off devices and collect belongings,” said Fegan. “This will be a chance for parents/guardians to take photos of their graduate, pick up diplomas, and possibly speak with friends and say goodbye to staff.”
“Planning for summer learning for some students is underway, as well as preparations for the new school year. We know this has been a challenging year for everyone – our staff, our students, and our families. We are looking forward to a new school year when we can teach and learn in our buildings.”For more information or TLDSB updates visit https://www.tldsb.ca/covid19/.