Students learning from home after province flip-flops on return to classrooms

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Students were supposed to be back in-class this week following a belated Christmas gift of a delayed return to school on Jan. 5.

The province’s top doctor, Dr. Kieran Moore, said the two extra days would be used to “provide schools additional time to prepare for the public health measures” announced during a Dec. 30 press conference covering changes to isolation requirements and PCR testing eligibility.

But that decision was followed up by a bizarre flip-flop four days later, when Premier Doug Ford announced on Jan. 3 that students would not in fact return to classrooms on Jan. 5, but two weeks later on Jan. 17 – at the earliest.

The government indecision on a post-holiday return to school has left Ontarians with a feeling of pandemic whiplash and the sense that the new year is already beginning to look much like the previous two.

In emails to the Advertiser, officials from both Wellington County school boards said the province provided no advance notice of a change in course – they found out when everyone else did.

The Advertiser sought to understand why and how a decision was initially made to return to in-class learning and later reversed, but Caitlin Clark, education minister Stephen Lecce’s spokesperson, ignored emailed questions and responded in part to others.

“Last week multiple measures were announced, like N95s for education staff, and more HEPA units which will be deployed over the coming weeks ahead of the return to in-person [learning],” Clark stated in an email.

Non-fit-tested N95 masks and three-ply masks for students, will be distributed to Ontario school boards along with 3,000 standalone high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units.

Last year, Lecce announced funding for HEPA units in school spaces to combat COVID’s spread. Around 70,000 units have been purchased by the province and sent to school boards, according to Clark.

Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA) president Cathy Abraham told the Advertiser school boards were provided with “quite a few of them” but said “there will still be classrooms right now that don’t have those HEPA filters.”

According to Clark, the ministry will work with school boards to operationalize new measures, such as updated COVID-19 screening, in the coming weeks. A more specific timeline was not provided.

In another email on Jan. 4, Clark said the Progressive Conservatives have “consistently enhanced measures in schools,” citing masks, air filtration upgrades and the “projected hiring” of at least 2,000 new staff consisting of teachers, custodians and mental health workers.

But NDP Official Opposition education critic Marit Stiles isn’t buying the rhetoric and questions why N95s and HEPA air filtration units weren’t being addressed long before the new year.

“I think the failure to make decisions when they needed to – it [has] left families really scrambling, and it’s really hard on people … I think it’s very unfortunate,” Stiles said during a phone call with the Advertiser.

“I don’t think it needed to be this way.”

The NDP is calling on the province to make rapid tests available for teachers and students, to have smaller class sizes, have in-school vaccination clinics, make vaccination mandatory for education workers and to add COVID vaccines to student immunization lists.

Stiles said those options, had they been acted upon sooner, would have contributed to keeping schools open.

“It’s not an impossible feat,” she remarked.

“They have an entire civil service, they have experts dying to work with them and they’ve really not brought those folks to the table,” she said, calling on Lecce to look for “resources and solutions” and to be “open and available” to questioning.

Abraham, the OPSBA president, said boards are ready to distribute resources to schools and teachers when they become available and are prepared for the return to virtual learning.

“There isn’t a board in this province that actually just waited until we got the word,” Abraham said, referring to the provincial announcement.

She explained education officials would have been on high alert for the province to alter plans following the December announcement and would have been working on contingency plans.

Riding previous waves has allowed boards to better know what to prepare for, such as the logistics of getting tech devices out to families for at-home learning.

But there’s a difference between boards and the teachers they employ who have had to rethink their teaching plans for an online format with only two days before broadcasting lessons across the internet.

David Del Duca, Wellington representative for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said although teachers are now better prepared for shifting to online learning, “mixed messaging and confusion at the highest level causes nothing but uncertainty” for parents and educators alike.

“Could we have avoided this? Absolutely,” Del Duca remarked, adding “no-brainers” like air filtration units should have been dealt with over a year ago.

While many teachers “hate online instruction” and agree that “in-class learning is better,” Del Duca said the association supports the move to virtual learning “until classrooms are the safest they can possibly be.”

Wellington Catholic District School Board teachers spent the days leading into Wednesday’s virtual return getting the online learning platform, D2L Brightspace, up and running.

According to emailed responses from Wellington Catholic District School Board director of education Michael Glazier and communications officer Ali Wilson, incoming HEPA units will augment already existing inventory.

All school classrooms already meet the province’s air filtration standards, according to Glazier and Wilson.

Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) communications manager Heather Loney said new HEPA filtration units will be placed in “all secondary school learning spaces, including continuing education sites.”

The additions mean all UGDSB elementary, secondary and portable classrooms will be outfitted with HEPA units.

Students will continue with virtual learning until at least Jan. 17, but Lecce’s spokesperson noted that date could change.