Parents and guardians of school-aged children in the London, Ont., region are voicing a mix of concern and skepticism after Premier Doug Ford confirmed reports that Ontario will return to in-person learning on Jan. 17.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) has not yet received official notice of the upcoming return from the Ministry of Education, according to an email sent to Global News by a board spokesperson.
The London District Catholic School Board did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.
The Ontario government temporarily closed schools at the beginning of the year in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, but some families believe more time is needed.
“It doesn’t seem like much has improved in the health-care system or in the hospitals enough to deem it safe for kids to go back to school,” said Sari Brady, whose 12-year-old son is enrolled in elementary school in TVDSB.
Kelly Burgess-Geiger has three children enrolled in TVDSB, along with two step-daughters in the Avon Maitland District School Board, which provides schooling in Huron and Perth counties.
The mother worries about her children being exposed to COVID-19 and the consequences that come with infection.
“Not only are they in isolation, then our family is in isolation, then they don’t have the option of virtual learning because the teachers cannot do both,” said Burgess-Geiger.
While she hasn’t been presented with the option to keep her kids online should in-person learning resume next week, Burgess-Geiger says she would consider doing so if the opportunity arises.
“I never did take that option before — our kids had always been in school, but we had COVID hit our family,” said Burgess-Geiger.
“It’s not a good situation, it did not go over well with our children, it was hard to deal with in many aspects and I don’t want to go through that again.”
AUDIO: Doug Ford confirms Ontario schools to reopen for in-person learning on Jan. 17
January’s return to in-person learning date has now been pushed back twice, leaving other parents skeptical next week’s return will even happen.
Stephanie Burt, who has three children in TVDSB, says she hasn’t been contacted by school officials as of Tuesday morning.
“Sadly, I’ve kind of gotten used to it,” the mother said of the province’s back-and-forth on return dates.
“We just hope and wait for that email saying it’s a go. I know the kids are excited, but again, they keep crossing their fingers as well.”
Matthew Beaudoin’s daughter is a Grade 2 student with TVDSB and also hasn’t received any information from his child’s school as of Tuesday morning.
“There’s no time to plan for the parents, as well as the teachers and staff and the kids, for whatever we’re doing without having anything good to work off of, and again this just contributes to the uncertainty and the stresses for everybody involved,” Beaudoin told Global News.
He believes there’s “a very good chance” the Ontario government could either reverse or adjust its decision to open schools before next Monday arrives, making it even harder to plan ahead.
“As a parent, whether they’re open or not makes a big difference in terms of how I am able to work, how comfortable I am with my child, how I send and prepare them,” Beaudoin added.
“The constant back-and-forth creates additional stress and there will be a certain point where the public is not going to be sympathetic as much anymore.”
There’s confusion from the other side of the classroom as well.
Trish, a kindergarten teacher with TVDSB who wishes to remain anonymous, says a recent survey among her class showed everyone wanted to return to class, but she wishes she could give them some certainty about next week.
“If we knew that we were going back next week, we could have those conversations with our class, but right now I’m not comfortable doing that because I just don’t know,” the teacher told Global News.
While Trish hopes to see classes reopen next week, the uncertainty has left her unable to plan for a return to in-person learning.
“I can whip something up, but I’m more in the headspace of online, so it does get tricky to flip,” Trish said.
“Especially being a parent, having to have those conversations with my own children and my class children as well because I feel like they have questions and they need to be aware of what’s going to happen and they need notice.”
Craig Smith, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s (ETFO) Thames Valley Teacher Local, expressed frustration that his union and its members learned of the province’s confirmed Jan. 17 return to class date through media reports on Monday evening.
He’s not convinced the province has done enough to make schools safe from COVID-19.
“What we don’t know, or what we think we don’t know, is what will happen if schools open on Monday. Nothing has changed, fundamentally, from where schools where when they closed before the Christmas break,” Smith said.
Smith’s union and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation are calling for more HEPA filters in schools and reduced class sizes to promote physical distancing, along with COVID-19 testing, tracing and monitoring protocols.
Without these measures, Smith warns infections and their ensuing isolation rules could have dire consequences for schools in the region.
“We will find gaps that will likely render the system unworkable and it will be staffing that causes the system to, again, grind to a bit of a halt.”
On Wednesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce is set to be joined by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore for an afternoon news conference that may provide families with some answers.
Few details have been shared about what Lecce will discuss, but a notice from his office says the minister will “make an announcement on preparations underway for the return to in-person learning.”
The news conference has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
COVID-19: Ontario’s health minister comments on decision to resume in-person learning Jan. 17
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