Back to school in 4 provinces while Omicron spreads

OTTAWA – Parents and teachers in four provinces are preparing for students to return to the classroom on Monday as the Omicron variant fuel wave of COVID-19 continues to spread and there are still questions about how prepared the schools actually are is about to come back in full scale.

Children in Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s largest provinces, will have to resume personal learning after their governments delayed their return due to record high case numbers during the holidays.

While public health experts, parents and officials agree that learning in school is best for children, school boards, families and unions say they are preparing for an increase in staff absenteeism due to the virus, with some concerned that contingency plans heralded by provincial governments may not be enough to keep schools running safely.

In a letter to members over the weekend, President Karen Brown of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said teachers from across the province have expressed a number of feelings about returning to class during this fifth wave of the pandemic, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19.

“Some members are enthusiastic and feel safe, others are cautiously optimistic, and some are anxious,” the letter to the union’s 83,000 members said.

Ontario reported that on Sunday, there were 3,595 patients admitted with COVID-19, of whom 579 were in intensive care.

The latest figures represent a drop from the day before, but Health Minister Christine Elliott noted that not all hospitals report their COVID-19 figures over the weekend.

Quebec, meanwhile, said hospital admissions rose by 105 over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of patients to 3,300.

Manitoba and Nova Scotia will also send children back to the classroom on Monday, with Nova Scotia being the only province in the Atlantic region to do so.

This province reported that 68 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 on Sunday, 10 more than the day before, 10 of whom received intensive care.

The president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, Paul Wozney, cast doubt on whether schools will be able to stay open this week, pointing out that children should be sent home earlier than hoped before the Christmas holidays due to staffing levels – and that was the case. was lower than today.

“The pressure that Omicron is presenting has not diminished, it has gotten worse.”

Instead of sending students back to school on Monday, Wozeny suggested the province should have taken a more cautious approach, as its neighbors have done, until the level of COVID-19 cases becomes more manageable.

One of the problems, he says, is the dwindling list of vacant teacher substitutes, which is even more of a problem in rural areas than in the provincial capital Halifax.

“We do not have people to maintain personal learning for any longer period of time,” he said. “We have made that very clear to the (education) department.”

School boards in Ontario have also warned parents to expect a possible return to distance learning as they try to deal with both infection and staff levels in the classrooms.

To keep schools open, Ontario and Nova Scotia plan to provide students with rapid antigen testing. The move comes at a time when Ottawa is trying to ensure that the 140 million it promised to send to the provinces this month arrives on time, as it works with 14 different suppliers and struggles with supply problems, as demand for the tests is increased.

Manitoba’s progressive conservative government also plans to rely on quick tests to keep students in school, saying it is still working on ventilation upgrades in many buildings.

Improved air quality and access to better masks were the main concerns parents, educators and doctors wanted governments to address before children returned to class.

In Quebec, for example – where updated guidelines say schools do not have to close in the event of an outbreak but can move online if more than 60 percent of students isolate themselves – some parents have condemned the fact that N95 masks is is reserved for “special schools”, but not all.

Contract tracking is also still a problem. In Manitoba, those infected in schools will not be able to count on officials to notify their close contacts. Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief physician, said at a briefing last week that the virus was simply spreading too fast.

He also said that the risk of children becoming seriously ill from the Omicron variant is low.

Mass return to personal learning comes after Health Canada reported that less than four percent of children in the country ages 5-11 were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday, when nearly 50 percent had received at least one dose.

At the same time, the country boasts that nearly 90 percent of people aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated, while the provinces race to get booster shots in as many arms as possible to combat the current rise.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 16, 2022.

-With files from Keith Doucette in Halifax and Virginie Ann in Montreal.


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