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School boards had issued notes telling families and staff to take all personal belongings and learning materials home when classes ended for the holidays in December in case classrooms shifted to remote learning.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

An Ontario school board has delayed the start of the winter term and others are rushing to equip their students with laptops and tablets after the province shut schools and moved two million students to virtual learning.

Premier Doug Ford said this week that elementary and high-school students would learn remotely, starting Wednesday and until at least Jan. 17 as the province brought in new restrictions to slow the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. The announcement was a surprise to families and educators who had been told four days earlier by the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, that schools would reopen to in-person learning on Wednesday. Several other provinces, including Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, have extended the winter break until Jan. 10.

The Durham District School Board, east of Toronto, told families in an e-mail that elementary school students would begin remote learning on Thursday, a day later than the rest of the province, as it worked to send Chromebooks and other devices to its students. “Please note that we do not have sufficient devices for every student,” the e-mail also noted, ”and this initial deployment will focus on one device per household.”

Robert Cerjanec, a board spokesman, said officials decided on the one-day delay in order to distribute the devices. He said that after the board examined its inventory, it would be able to distribute more to households with more than one child.

At the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, a spokesman said that while secondary school students have devices to learn remotely, it does not have enough technology for those in kindergarten who need them. Parents would instead receive prepared paper packages, said Shawn McKillop. He added that the board had ordered more devices this school year and had anticipated adding to that order.

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School boards across the province had issued notes telling families and staff to take all personal belongings and learning materials home when classes ended for the holidays in December in case classrooms shifted to remote learning.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said while boards have bought more devices since the pandemic began and are better prepared to distribute devices, “there’s going to be challenges.” Some students at her board, the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board in Peterborough, won’t have devices until the end of week, she said, which means they’ll work in their notebooks.

“We’re given two days to do it, and we’re working at it,” Ms. Abraham said.

Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said that, since the last academic year, the government has invested money to help buy more than 330,000 computers and tablets for students, as well as supporting 13,000 internet connections. “Our government has stepped up to build an online learning system that ensures that students continue teacher-led learning,” she said.

However, Prachi Srivastava, an associate professor of education at the University of Western Ontario in London, said that the data show access to technology in inequitable. The Ministry of Education should have provided every student with a device “as a basic requirement” to their learning, she said.

Prof. Srivastava said that government officials anticipated a third year of learning interruptions and should have been better prepared.

“We don’t know how long virtual learning will be extended, or if it will be introduced later in the year if in-person learning resumes in two weeks. But we do know that it’s a possibility again. There is no reason for this ad-hoc planning to continue well into the third year of disruption,” she said.

In her downtown Toronto classroom, Catherine Inglis said more than half of her Grade 4 students have requested a device. She hadn’t heard from five other families on Tuesday. Only three students said they had technology to sign in on Wednesday morning. Her school is located in St. James Town, a densely populated pocket sandwiched between two wealthy neighbourhoods.

Ms. Inglis’s classroom had 10 laptops and she was waiting to hear how they would be distributed to students. In the meantime, she said that she has connected with families and that students will work in their notebooks.

“It’s going to be difficult to do a full pivot until I have all the kids on with devices,” she said.

Ryan Bird, a spokesman at the Toronto District School Board, the country’s largest, said that the board distributed about 76,000 devices to students, mostly Chromebooks, since the start of the pandemic. About 20,000 had not been returned to the central office despite multiple requests, he said. The devices that are still with families are being temporarily reactivated, he said, and those sitting in schools are being returned to the central depot for an inspection, cleaning and repair.

Mr. Bird said that the board has enough devices for students who need them. However, he added, not everyone will have one in time for Wednesday morning and teachers would provide independent work to students.

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