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An educator walks down the hallway of Willows Walk Public School, in Whitby, Ont., on Jan., 14, 2022.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ontario school boards struggled with staff absences and classroom closings as most of the province’s two million students returned to school buildings on Wednesday for the first time in a month.

Students have been learning remotely for two weeks following the winter break after a surge in COVID-19 cases, fuelled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Last week, the province announced that in-person learning would resume on Monday, but a major snowstorm hampered those plans for students in the Toronto area and surrounding Southern Ontario schools.

Two classes at one elementary school were closed because of staff shortages at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, and those students were moved to online learning for the day on Wednesday.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, west of Toronto, said it was unable to fill about 200 teaching jobs with supply teachers and covered the vacancies using non-teaching staff.

At the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), the teacher absence rate was 11 per cent. Roughly 50 per cent of the vacant elementary teaching positions and 27 per cent of high-school positions could not be filled with supply teachers, and other staff stepped in to provide supervision to those classrooms.

“I think all of us are preparing that we’re going to have higher absences,” said Brendan Browne, the TCDSB’s director of education, adding that officials are meeting daily to assess where they need to deploy staff the following morning.

“We know that the kids need to be back in school. We know they missed it terribly,” he said. “We want to do our best to reduce the anxiety out there.”

The Ontario government said it delayed the return to in-person learning because it wanted more time to implement more safety measures in schools, including the shipment of N95 masks for staff and the rollout of rapid tests for students and staff. However, recent government policy changes also means that schools will no longer be able to access PCR tests, students won’t be sent home to self-isolate if there’s a COVID-19 case in the classroom, and the province won’t be reporting information on daily COVID-19 cases in schools. It plans to share information on absences starting next week.

Doctors, parents and educators have debated whether it’s the right time to reopen schools. Public-health officials are having to weigh the risk of COVID-19, which is relatively mild in children, against the academic and social harms to keeping students out of school. The additional challenge facing school officials is managing classroom supervision as staff isolate because they have exposed to the virus or have symptoms. Already, schools in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, which reopened earlier than those in most provinces, are scrambling to properly staff classrooms.

Shawn McKillop, a spokesman for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, in Southern Ontario, said central staff, including consultants, were sent to six schools on Wednesday where there were the largest number of unfilled jobs. Mr. McKillop said that while deploying central staff to schools is not new, it’s also a “last resort.”

At the District School Board Ontario North East, in Timmins, students resumed in-person learning on Monday. Lesleigh Dye, the board’s director of education, said that on average, one to three staff members in each school have been absent. In one school, five staff were absent.

She said the board has been able to fill the gaps with supply teachers, non-teaching staff and non-certified instructors. (In past exceptional circumstances, boards have asked people without a teaching certificate to step in because of a shortage of substitutes. Such individuals require a police background check.)

“I think for the next month, as we move into February, I think we’re going to have at least four weeks of very challenging times,” Ms. Dye said.

School administrators have been told that if they feel a school is not adequately staffed to keep students safe, families would be informed, and students would shift to remote learning, Ms. Dye said.

“That,” she said, “will be our last resort. We have some backup staff.”

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