Students return to classrooms next week amid fears that COVID-19 could once again disrupt learning

More than two million public school students will return to their classrooms next week for the start of what educators hope will be a much more normal academic year, with mask mandates lifted and extracurricular activities set to be revived.

It is good news after two years of disruptions, which saw frequent classroom and school closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks and regular shifts to remote learning across entire boards.

But when students across the Greater Toronto Area do return to classrooms on Tuesday and Wednesday, there will be higher levels of viral activity in the community, as well as more strain on the healthcare system, than in either of the last two Septembers.

The Ontario government has also announced an end to a mandatory isolation period for those who test positive for COVID-19, potentially paving the way for some asymptomatic staff and students to return to schools while still infectious.

That, most experts agree, will lead to more spread within schools.

“I am very worried. If you look at our dashboard right now compared to August 2021, you will see across a range of indicators that the risk is much higher. If you look at the number of tests that are coming back positive, if you look at the wastewater signal, if you look at the number of people in hospital, all of these indicators suggest depending on which one you’re looking at that things could be five to 10 times worse than in August 2021,” Dr. Fahad Razak, the scientific director of Ontario’s soon to be disbanded Science Advisory Table, told this week. “So we have substantially worse COVID indicators, we have clearly a crisis in hospitals and we have the risk of a resurgent influenza and other respiratory virus season based on what we’re seeing in the southern hemisphere. If you put all of those together, this could be an extremely challenging and hard fall and winter season.”

Ontario lifted the mask mandate for most settings, including public schools, earlier in March and will keep that policy in place for the start of this academic year.

It is also no longer mandating that schools publicly report information about absentee rates, though some boards, including the TDSB, will continue to do so.

School boards will also offer remote learning once again, following an edict from the Ministry of Education, but fewer students will be enrolled. In the TDSB, about 4,800 students have opted for online learning this fall compared to 25,000 last September.

Razak, who himself is the father of two school-aged children, told that classrooms, by their nature, are “high-risk settings”, especially at the elementary level where vaccination rates are lower and students might be less likely to “effectively use infection prevention strategies.”

But he said that there are some things parents can do to protect their kids, while ensuring that they benefit from a more consistent return to in-person learning.

“For us, for our children, we’re going to ask them to continue to wear high-quality masks as much as possible. You know, they’re young ones, so obviously as a parent you do what you can. They may not wear it all the time. But if they can wear it, at least some of the time or most of the time, that’ll keep them more safe than not wearing it,” he said. “At the same time. We’re also going to do our best to keep them out of school if they are sick. So if they have the sniffles we will do our testing but we’ll try and keep them out as much as we can. The third thing is we’re still prioritizing activities as much as possible for them that are in safer environments. So can we meet up with some of their friends and other parents and families in the park instead of an indoor setting? We’re keeping up their social lives but just trying to do it in safer settings.”

COVID-19 schools

In-person learning has been disrupted for three straight school years

Ontario managed to keep in-person learning in place for much of the first term in 2021-2022 but was eventually forced to close all schools for a period of about two weeks in January as the Omicron variant led to a rapid rise in infection across the province.

This time around educators are hopeful that there will be more consistency for students.

But at the same time, they are worried about the province’s abrupt decision to alter isolation guidance for those who test positive for COVID-19 just days prior to the start of the school year.

“You know the government and others that are advocating for this change have said that we have to count on people to make appropriate decisions moving forward and that being wearing masks and keeping distance and staying home when they need to stay home but five-year-olds don’t operate like that,” Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario First Vice President David Mastin, who works as a teacher in Durham Region, told this week. “It’s laughable when you talk to an elementary educator about personal responsibility over something so severe and so important. I mean, these are four- and five-year-olds, they don’t have that self-regulation. Educators or parents can put a mask in a backpack but it doesn’t necessarily translate to those types of responsible decisions that both the government and others are advocating for.”

Mastin said that educators are, on the whole, eager to get back to more of a normal learning environment, having learned first-hand through the pandemic about some of the shortfalls of online learning.

However, he said some are still “very afraid” about the risk of contracting COVID-19 in classrooms, which he said unfortunately are “perfect transmission sources for this type of an airborne virus.”

“You know, we’re going to have COVID in our schools and it’s just a matter of how much of a burden that places on our healthcare system and what kind of impact that has on in-person learning,” he said. “We’ve got a government that’s been screaming that they want to return to normal in our schools and blaming teachers’ federations and teachers for potential work action as their contracts expire. But the government, on the other breath, is making decisions that could, in fact, compromise a stable and uninterrupted return to school in September.”

Goodbye cohorting and mandatory physical distancing

As students return to classrooms this week they are likely to be greeted by something resembling a more normal learning environment, with things like cohorting and mandatory physical distancing no longer in place.

The government will still be providing N95 masks to educators, should they choose to wear one.

It will also maintain an online school screening tool for students who develop symptoms.

The updated guidance will be that anyone with new or worsening symptoms should stay home until their symptoms have been improving for at least 24 hours, or 48 hours for nausea, vomiting and or diarrhea.

Karen Littlewood, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, told this week that teachers are mostly excited about the prospect of a full year of uninterrupted in-person learning.

The concern, she said, is that the lifting of public health restrictions could eventually put that at risk should there be a spike in infections.

She also worried about COVID spread among an age group, where booster uptake has been slow.

“Just like the general population, we have members who want to never see a mask again. But really the majority of our members do want to have some protections in place,” she said. “Everybody wants things to be back to the way things were before but I don’t think we’re in a place yet where we can just jump back in.”

Mental health supports needed as schools reopen

The regular interruptions to in-person learning over the last three school years didn’t come without a cost.

Experts have said that student mental suffered during the pandemic, with a notable increase in the number of children seeking out help for depression and anxiety.

In fact, one Centre for Addiction and Mental Health survey released last spring found that nearly half of Ontario students (47 per cent) reported moderate to severe levels of psychological distress in the previous month.

“We’ve seen the mounting mental health challenges but that’s just for the folks that are able to identify them or parents who recognize that a child could be missing out on learning related to anxiety or depression. So I think we’re up against quite a lot as we head into the next week and we try to help our children adjust to the new normal,” Deepy Sur, the CEO of the Ontario Association of Social Workers, told “Stunning stats from some of our colleagues are telling us that on the front line now one in three parents are saying that their child misses school due to anxiety. That’s huge.”

As schools get set to reopen, many organizations are working to ensure mental health supports will be in place to ease the transition for students.

Sur said that providing consistent in-person learning for the first time since the 2018-2019 academic year will be “incredibly important” when it comes to supporting students who are struggling.

But she also encouraged parents to create a “safe space” for children to talk freely about mental health challenges and to be on the lookout for warning signs, especially during those first few weeks of school.

“My largest worry is about children who suffer and children who suffer in silence and don’t have those timely supports. Normalcy (over the last two-and-a-half years) was replaced, for some, with a lot of quiet suffering and that’s the real pandemic,” she said.