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High school students at College Louis Riel walk out of class in Winnipeg on Jan. 17. Some students protested their return to school as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in Manitoba.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

The return to in-class learning was temporarily shelved in parts of Ontario and Quebec as a severe snowstorm shuttered school buildings on Monday.

Meanwhile, students in Manitoba walked out of their classrooms in protest of the province’s back-to-school plan. Schools in Toronto and Ottawa were among those who cancelled classes for the day, although many boards offered remote learning. All Montreal public schools were also closed because of the snowstorm.

“A day like today provides a learning and well-being opportunity for families and children to enjoy recreational activities outdoors, which is a key part of child development,” said Manny Figueiredo, director of education at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in Southwestern Ontario.

Millions of students in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia were to return to in-person learning on Monday after an extended winter break and a period of online learning. That delay was intended to give schools more time to gird themselves against the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19. Students in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have been back in classrooms for at least a week. School boards in those provinces are already facing issues around staff shortages, and some classrooms temporarily shifted online because of a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Parents, teachers in four provinces prepare to return to class as Omicron spreads

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford had said he closed schools to in-person learning for two weeks in the new year because hospitalizations were rising, but also to implement more safety measures and give time for students and staff to get vaccinated. The government said that while schools were closed, it shipped N95 masks for school staff and accelerated booster shots for education and child-care workers; it is also preparing to deploy 3,000 HEPA filters on top of the 70,000 already in schools.

The Toronto District School Board sent a note to educators and families on Sunday evening explaining that classes would run remotely if school buildings were closed on Monday. “While we had shared last month that if buses were cancelled, it would be a typical ‘snow day’ (no live learning), as the entire system has already been learning remotely for almost two weeks, and given the disruptions to students’ learning, we feel it would be best to extend remote learning for one additional day,” the letter stated.

The board was criticized for its last-minute change. It issued another statement on Monday morning stating that schools would be closed to in-person learning and while staff would “do their very best to provide remote learning and where not feasible, will post work for students.”

Michelle Teixeira, head of Toronto’s high-school teachers’ federation, said educators felt “disrespected” by the sudden policy change late Sunday evening.

“It created an enormous amount of undue stress for them,” she said. “The board talks about mental health and wellness of its workers. But that didn’t seem to be apparent in how they handled this particular situation.”

In Manitoba, students in several schools staged a walkout Monday morning to protest the lack of safety measures to protect them against COVID-19 as they returned to their classrooms.

Adrian Bunn, a Grade 10 student in Winnipeg, said he and other students would like to have access to rapid tests, and an option for remote learning.

“We’re protesting because of the rise of Omicron and how our school is still going back to in-person when really that’s not the best option and we should really be staying home,” he said.

Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, said that, similar to other provinces, there’s “always room for improvement” to health and safety measures in schools, including upgrading ventilation.

“We continue to engage with the provincial government about those shortcomings,” he said.

While students in the rest of Atlantic Canada stayed home for an extended period of virtual learning, children returned to classrooms across Nova Scotia on Monday. A spokesperson for the largest public-school board in the province said there wasn’t a notable increase in teacher absences on the first day.

Doug Hadley, a spokesperson for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, said the priority is keeping schools open. If necessary, the public board will draw from its lists of substitute teachers and retired administrators, and reassign licensed teachers who typically work in administration to help in schools, he said.

“We are pleased to welcome all students back to in-person learning, as school is the best place for students’ emotional, social, physical and intellectual well-being and development,” he said. “We will exhaust all options before closing a school.”

With reports from Greg Mercer and Eric Andrew-Gee

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