With only a month left in the Ontario school year, some parents, teachers and doctors are voicing their frustration with the uncertainty of whether students will be able to return to their classrooms.
“I think parents really have been expected to do way too much,” said Tess Clifford, the director of the psychology clinic at Queen’s University in Kingston. “They deserve to have clearer information about what’s next.”
Dr. Clifford addressed the challenges working parents face with distance learning, which she felt were largely unacknowledged by the provincial government. Dr. Clifford has two children, in junior kindergarten and Grade 2, and had to hire child care support since she and her partner both work. Living in the uncertainty of whether schools will reopen makes it even more difficult, she said.
The Ontario government is expected to announce whether in-person classes will resume before the end of the school year by June 2, when the province’s stay-at-home order lifts. Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, said this week that he is pushing for schools to reopen as soon as possible, and that the first week of June would be an “opportune time” in certain areas of the province. But the decision, he said, is ultimately up to Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet.
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in an e-mailed statement that the government is prioritizing the safety of students, staff and families, and that officials will work with Dr. Williams, other medical experts and education partners across the province as the conversation of reopening continues.
Mr. Ford has recently said he wants to achieve “consensus” on reopening schools, with some medical experts opposed. Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said last week that infections could rise between 6 and 11 per cent with a return to in-person learning, although it said that could be “manageable.”
With the number of daily COVID-19 cases decreasing, some medical experts said the risks of continuing distance learning should be taken into consideration.
Martha Fulford, an infectious-disease specialist at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, said remote learning has had “a dramatic and worsening impact on our children.” She noted an increase in eating disorders, anxiety and mental-health concerns, and expressed concern over the impact that the recent lack of socialization will have on children.
“It’s very concerning to us what we’re seeing in the hospitals,” Dr. Fulford said. “It’s a secondary public-health crisis.”
She added that distance learning has emphasized inequities in many communities – some students, for instance, don’t have internet access at home. Returning to the classroom would help alleviate some of those disparities.
Dr. Clifford at Queen’s echoed Dr. Fulford’s concerns. Even with only a month left in the school year, she said, in-person learning would be “exactly what kids need right now.” The pandemic has been a huge stressor for everyone in the community, and being reunited with their peers would relieve a lot of the anxieties that students have been feeling, she said.
“We just think that children have been ignored and their right to education and well-being have been ignored,” Dr. Clifford said. “That’s a real disappointment.”
Many teachers said that while in-person instruction is always preferred over distance learning, they want to ensure that returning to the classroom would be safe for both staff and students.
Harvey Bischof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said that while there are some regions where the risk to reopen in June may be too high, there are others that may be safe enough.
He expressed frustration, though, with the government’s lack of communication with teachers. He said teachers have “been left out” of the discussion with the government on whether to reopen schools.
“There is a great deal of anxiety and there is no evidence, unfortunately, that this government is working to a plan,” Mr. Bischof said. “We can provide truly constructive advice from the perspective of those who work on the ground in our classrooms, in our schools, and they are just utterly uninterested in hearing it.”
With a report from Laura Stone in Toronto
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