WELLINGTON COUNTY – The province’s decision to keep students at home for the remainder of the school year has received mixed reviews from local school board officials.
Wellington County’s two school boards — with 43,000 students between them — recently released statements on the decision in order to keep parents and guardians informed.
“We understand that while this news from the province may be a relief to some, it will be a source of stress and challenge to others,” states a June 2 statement from the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB).
The public board will offer summer school programming and supports for students with special education and mental health needs, along with transition supports.
While Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced school boards would be able to host outdoor graduation ceremonies in June, aligning with the province’s reopening plan, UGDSB high school graduation ceremonies will remain postponed until the fall, according to communications manager Heather Loney.
“At this time, elementary schools will be planning outdoor celebrations for students who will be graduating to new schools (Grades 6 and 8) in June,” Loney said in an emailed response to questions from the Advertiser.
UGDSB trustee and vice chair Barbara Lustgarten Evoy said she’s heard from parents wanting their kids to return to school, but who are also concerned about the safety of doing so.
“There’s frustration, but there’s understanding,” she said, emphasizing everyone is doing their best to rise to the occasion.
Lustgarten Evoy, who represents Centre Wellington, said she doesn’t believe the province’s decision will impact rural students differently than urban students in the coming weeks.
But “overall, definitely we’ve had our challenges,” she said, specifically referring to unreliable rural internet access.
“Things have changed a lot since March 13 of last year, and I think I would never speak for the families that are struggling, but we’re slowly all learning how to do this,” she said.
“Does that make it easier? Gosh, no. I know it’s tough.”
The Wellington Catholic District School Board’s (WCDSB) June 2 announcement read of a difficult year and thanked families and staff for their “understanding and support” navigating through various challenges.
WCDSB director of education Mike Glazier said the focus between now and the fall is on preparing families for what to expect upon returning to classes.
The board will be operating summer programming for elementary and secondary students addressing language and math skills, secondary school credits, special education transitions and mental health supports.
As for outdoor graduations, Glazier said that prior to the province’s June 2 announcement, WCDSB schools had scheduled outdoor curbside graduation ceremonies similar to last year and are now waiting on further details from the province.
Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for education minister Stephen Lecce, said in an emailed statement to the Advertiser individual school boards, along with local public health units, will ultimately make the call on grad ceremonies.
Clark said the province is “strongly encouraging and enabling” safe outdoor and in-person graduations.
WCDSB trustee and chair Vikki Dupuis stated in an email she was “disappointed” to hear students would not be returning to classrooms.
“The mental health of our students is a concern, and we know that many of our students, especially our younger ones, thrive when they are able to learn together, in-person,” she said.
“This has been so difficult for our students and staff, and I believe there would have been benefits to closing the school year together.”
Teachers’ unions, the Children’s Health Coalition, and the Council of Medical Officers of Health all responded to a request from the province at the end of May for advice on reopening schools — and all advocated for a regional approach to reopening classrooms.
“As leaders in children’s health, we are deeply disappointed that Ontario has not acted upon the broad consensus for a regional reopening of in-person learning,” states a June 2 open letter from the Children’s Health Coalition.
“There are few places in the world where kids have been out of school more than Ontario, and no other Canadian province has had school closures this long.”
The coalition, a collective of major children’s health organizations in the province, called on the government in its letter to develop a “robust plan” putting children first in pandemic recovery.
Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario president Sam Hammond called on the province in a June 2 statement to spend “every minute” preparing for a safe return to in-person learning come fall.
“Consultations with stakeholders on updated protocols should begin immediately,” Hammond stated.
The Council of Medical Officers of Health (COMOH) letter on behalf of the province’s medical officers of health and signed by the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, stated, “Schools should be the last sector to close and the first sector to reopen.”
The letter adds the increase in cases from reopening schools would be small, and “most public health units believe that they can mitigate and manage those increases in their communities.”
Dr. Nicola Mercer, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health’s (WDGPH) medical officer of health, supported the COMOH letter.
Earlier, on April 7, she ordered all schools in the WDGPH region closed, six days before the province closed all schools in Ontario.
“The local decline in cases coupled with our progress on vaccinations has significantly improved our situation,” she stated in an email to the Advertiser, adding the “significant benefits” of in-class learning cannot be ignored.
Mercer also said the public health unit is on track to meet its vaccination requirements and has “made preparations to meet the second dose needs of students and teachers by August.”
Both local school boards received federal and provincial funding in April for upgrades to air and ventilation systems, plumbing improvements, touchless water refill stations and partitions.
The UGDSB will present a progress report on upgrades in August, ahead of schools opening, according to Loney.
Glazier noted the WCDSB “had been prepared for a return to in-class learning in June and will be prepared again in September.”
Both boards will reach out to students and families with more information when available, including details about returning remote learning technology and claiming belongings from schools.