Parents and teachers in four provinces are bracing for students to return to the classroom Monday as the Omicron variant-fuelled wave of COVID-19 continues to spread and questions remain about how prepared schools really are for a full-scale return.
Kids in Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s largest provinces, will resume in-person learning after their governments delayed their return in the face of record-setting case numbers over the holidays.
While public health experts, parents and officials agree that in-school learning is best for children, school boards, families and unions say they’re preparing for an increase in staff absences because of the virus, with some expressing concern not enough has been done to ensure they can keep operating safely.
In a letter to members over the weekend, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario President Karen Brown said educators from across the province have expressed a range of emotions about heading back to class amid 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,” it reads.
Ontario reported there were 3,595 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, with 579 in intensive care.
The latest figures represent a drop from the day before, but Health Minister Christine Elliott tweeted not all hospitals report their COVID-19 numbers over the weekend.
Quebec, meanwhile, said hospitalizations rose by 105 over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of patients to 3,300.
Manitoba and Nova Scotia will also send kids back to the classroom on Monday, with Nova Scotia being the only province in the Atlantic region to be doing so.
That province reported 68 people were admitted to hospital because of COVID-19 on Sunday, 10 more than the previous day, with 10 receiving intensive care.
Nova Scotia Teachers Union President Paul Wozney cast doubt on whether schools will be able to stay open for the week, pointing out that kids had to be sent home earlier than hoped for before the Christmas break because of staffing levels – and that was when caseloads were lower than they are today.
Rather than send students back to school on Monday, Wozeny suggested the province should have taken a more cautious approach as its neighbours have done until COVID-19 case levels become more manageable.
School boards in Ontario have also warned parents to expect possible returns to remote learning as they try to manage both infection and staffing levels in classrooms.
To keep schools open, Ontario and Nova Scotia plan to supply students with rapid antigen tests. The move comes at a time when Ottawa tries to ensure the 140 million it promised to send provinces this month arrive on schedule, as it works with 14 different suppliers and battles supply issues as demand for the tests have soared.
The mass return to in-person learning comes after Health Canada reported less than four per cent of children in the country aged 5-11 were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday, with nearly 50 per cent having received at least one dose.
At the same time, the country boasts nearly 90 per cent of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated while provinces race to get booster shots into as many arms as possible to battle the current surge.
With files from Keith Doucette in Halifax
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.