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Allison O’Grady and her sons, Sam O’Grady, 7, and Gabe O’Grady, 9, outside their home in Edmonton on Aug. 13, 2020.The Globe and Mail

In less than a month, millions of kids will return to school. What do parents need to know?

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Allison O’Grady decided to send her sons back to school this fall online – an option her family did not want. But with few details available about the measures being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in her children’s classrooms in Edmonton, Ms. O’Grady felt forced to choose before she was ready.

“I’m frustrated because I’m being asked to make a really big decision, but without all the information that I need,” she said. “I have to decide by Friday which route we’re going. ... If I saw what it will look like in my kids’ school, then maybe I would feel differently.”

Parents are facing tight deadlines to choose between in-person and remote learning as educators and families try to navigate evolving guidelines for school reopenings. Timelines and options to switch learning models vary among boards, with some requiring students to lock in their decisions for as long as early 2021.

Ms. O’Grady and her husband work full time and need flexibility with school schedules to juggle jobs and family responsibilities. To send their children to school in-person – their preferred option – could require them to work from home on short notice if the school had an outbreak or a child at the school fell ill. They hope the online option will cause less disruption in their sons’ education and their work schedules.

Provincial governments have faced mounting criticism on school reopening plans. Crowded classes, poor funding for staff support and confusing policies on mask use have parents, students and teachers feeling uncertain about safety and the quality of education.

Not all students in Canada will have the option to learn online. Remote classes will be offered at all levels in Ontario and by some boards in Alberta. In British Columbia and Manitoba, parents are urging their provincial governments to provide online options.

Parents say the varying rules and deadlines are confusing. They will have some flexibility to change their minds, but some boards say switching will depend on capacity and timing.

At the Calgary Board of Education, students can move from remote to face-to-face learning in February, but are not permitted to go from in-class to online after Sept. 1. Students at Edmonton schools can switch at the beginning of each new quarter period. The board, Edmonton Public Schools, will allow students to leave in-person classrooms to work at home any time they want to, but they would have to wait until the beginning of the next quarter to join an online class. And Edmonton Catholic Schools, where Ms. O’Grady’s children are enrolled, will not allow students to switch options once school begins until the next quarter.

“If a child becomes ill or there’s a medical reason, of course, we’re going to look at that,” said Tim Cusack, deputy superintendent at ECS. “But we’re asking parents to make a firm commitment to one learning stance or the other, and that is because we need to deploy human resources to make it work.”

Parents in Ontario have a similar dilemma. The Peel District School Board – one of the largest school boards in Canada – asked parents to submit their decision by Aug. 17 and said that after the first week of school, secondary students will not have the option to change until the next quarter. Parents of students in the Toronto District School Board received automated calls last week asking them to choose a learning model, and what their decision would be in the case of current class sizes and in reduced class sizes – an option the province is not funding. The chance to switch will depend on space in classes, according to the TDSB website.

The Peel and Toronto boards did not respond to requests for comment.

While the largest school boards in both provinces have released plans for their districts – which range from 100 to 600 schools – those guidelines could be applied differently depending on classroom circumstances. But many school plans will not be available until late August, when principals and administrative staff return to work, weeks after many parents must finalize their decisions.

In many classrooms, students sit at tables in groups facing each other rather than at traditional desks. To space out seating arrangements, boards have advised schools to remove additional furniture and tools, such as shelves of books and toys, and to convert gyms, libraries and other common areas into classrooms.

The loss of educational instruction in common areas and teaching tools in classrooms could negatively affect student learning, said Dena Haber, a parent and teacher in Toronto.

Ms. Haber’s daughter is starting her first year of kindergarten in September, but it may not be at a school in the TDSB. She said the in-person setup is unsafe, with large classes, and a parent would need to be at home and available to facilitate online learning for the four-year-old, she said. With Ms. Haber returning to the classroom in September, she is considering the difficult decision of enrolling her daughter in a private school.

“I can’t put her in a room with 30 kids with poor ventilation,” she said. “And even beyond the safety issues with the pandemic, I fear the environment that I’m putting my child into.”

British Columbia said in early August that most students will return to school for full-time, in-class learning. Since then, parents have demanded remote learning options, with an online petition racking up 35,000 signatures.

Premier John Horgan said in the legislature on Friday that students and parents that are uncomfortable with the plan can opt for distance learning – an existing program that provides the provincial curriculum through online institutions. But the province would not comment on whether students will need to leave their current schools to do that, which in crowded districts could mean losing a spot if they hope to return.

Mr. Horgan added that students in Vancouver and some districts will announce hybrid plans this week that could include a blend of in-person and remote classes. To find out whether a local school will offer online learning, parents should call their district, the Premier said.

The Vancouver School Board said details of its plan will be released later this week.

The province has given B.C. school districts until Aug. 26 to communicate plans to parents.

Edmond Luk, who launched the online petition, said the short runway for decision-making and lack of remote options has his family considering homeschooling for his seven-year-old daughter, who is supposed to start Grade 3 at a French immersion school in Burnaby. But with his two senior parents at home, sending her to school with a cohort that could have as many as 60 children would put his family at risk, he said.

Mr. Luk inquired about distance learning in Burnaby, but all classes were full. Pulling his daughter out of her school would cost her a spot in one of the few institutions of its kind in the area, he said.

“The government has been very ambiguous in stating that there are options for families, but in fact there are not,” Mr. Luk said. “We’re still on the edge waiting. But if they don’t make any changes before school starts, then I would not put my daughter’s and family’s life in danger.”

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