Close to 100 Syrian child refugees, temporarily living at a Toronto hotel, waved goodbye to their parents Monday morning, climbed onto four buses and attended school for the first time in years.
They will spend a couple of hours each day attending schools in the northwest corner of the city as part of a joint initiative between the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Toronto District School Board.
Families can't register their children for school unless they have a permanent address. But the two boards and a resettlement agency have joined forces to open up a handful of classrooms so that government-sponsored child refugees can explore what it's like at a Canadian school. The children are not in regular classrooms, but rather in separate areas of the building getting a sense of the school system, doing literacy and numeracy assessments and receiving English-as-a-second-language instruction.
The intent is to offer the program to all refugee children temporarily housed in hotels across the city.
"We're providing them with some experience of the education system to give them, if you will, a foretaste of what it's like to be in a Canadian school," said Nick D'Avella, superintendent of student success at the Catholic board. "A key part of the welcome is acclimatizing them to the greatest extent possible, and as soon as possible, with our education system."
More than 16,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada, either privately sponsored, government-assisted or through a blend of private and government sponsorship. In Toronto, the government-sponsored refugees are being temporarily housed in at least four hotels.
At the Toronto Plaza Hotel, near Jane Street and Wilson Avenue, there are about 265 children, the largest grouping in the city. Families have been at the hotel for about four or five weeks. Many of these children have lived through violence, and missed years of schooling.
On Monday, the two school boards bused children 6 and under, along with their parents, to parenting and family literacy centres, where they could socialize with other youngsters and learn reading, writing and math skills.
Elementary- and high school-aged children were taken to schools where the boards employed Arabic-speaking translators, teachers and social workers to help them with the transition.
Karen Falconer, executive superintendent of continuing and international education at the TDSB, said staff would be helping the older children prepare for starting at a Canadian school.
School-board officials acknowledged there was some reluctance from parents when they first approached them late last week at the hotel.
"We're all cognizant of the fact that these families aren't going to just necessarily trust to put their kids on the bus," Ms. Falconer said. "We chose the largest hotel because we wanted word to spread."
Already, about 50 more children are registered to attend the program Tuesday, a TDSB spokeswoman said.
Josie Di Zio, senior director of planning and program development for COSTI Immigrant Services, a resettlement agency, said parents in other hotels have expressed interest as well.
At the Toronto Plaza Hotel, Ms. Di Zio said her organization has tried to keep the kids occupied. A children's room has been set up with toys and books. There are age-appropriate activities run by volunteers. Some of the older children are taken to a nearby community centre to play soccer in the gym, or do arts and crafts.
"We're struggling with keeping the kids occupied during the day, especially in a hotel situation and especially in the winter," Ms. Di Zio said.
Ms. Di Zio greeted the children when they returned on the school buses Monday afternoon. "I think they're happy because it's being somewhere other than here, even if it is a school. They are going a little stir-crazy," she said.