Elementary and high school students in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Nunavut are poised to return to classrooms on Monday and Tuesday.
The Omicron wave has had an outsized impact on COVID-19 case management across the country, and several provinces are eschewing traditional case counts as a metric for the spread of the coronavirus in schools, which has led to difficult decisions for parents worried both about the safety of their children as well as the impact of virtual learning on their education and mental health.
CBC News spoke with Canadian parents about their decisions to send their kids back to school this week — or keep them home.
‘I’ve seen the negative effects of online learning’
“The decision was easy for us because I’ve seen the negative effects of online learning for my children,” said Katherine Korakakis, a Montreal parent and the president of the English Parents Committee Association, an organization that represents 100,000 students in Quebec’s English public school system.
An Ipsos poll conducted in June showed that 67 per cent of Canadian parents believe virtual learning will have an impact on their children’s future opportunities.
Her children are 11 and 14, and both are fully vaccinated. She says it’s been especially difficult to cope since the end of December, when Quebec reimplemented its curfew (which was lifted on Monday), banned private gatherings between members of different households and moved to virtual learning.
Because many school boards in Quebec and Ontario announced a snow day on Jan. 17, Korakakis will send her kids back for in-person instruction on Tuesday.
“We have some HEPA filters in the school boards and in the schools that my children are in. So that makes me feel very safe, actually,” Korakakis said, though she noted that not all schools have these systems.
HEPA filtration is designed to improve air quality, but there is no clear consensus on their effectiveness. The Public Health Agency of Canada says HEPA filters can be used as an “additional protection.”
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Though Quebec continues to release data on positive cases of COVID-19 in schools, publicly-funded PCR testing — once a reliable if imperfect indicator of COVID-19’s spread — is currently reserved for “certain higher priority clients,” according to the Quebec government’s website.
The absence of comprehensive case count numbers “just adds more fuel to an already raging fire,” Korakakis said.
‘The goalposts have shifted’
Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma, a mother of two from Toronto, says she’ll be adding extra turmeric to the soup tonight — an immunity boost before she reluctantly sends her kids back to school tomorrow.
Having previously supported efforts to keep children in school, Chhitwal-Varma says the Omicron wave has changed her perspective. One of her major concerns is that in late December, Ontario announced that it would no longer release public data on COVID-19 case numbers in schools.
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“If we don’t have that as a reliable data point anymore — which I totally get — there needs to be another way” to determine the spread of COVID-19, she said.
Chhitwal-Varma’s children are 11 and 16. Her youngest received a first dose at the end of November and a second dose last weekend. Her eldest daughter has received two doses as well.
But booster shots are only approved for Canadians 18 and older — and the efficacy of two doses waned against the Omicron variant, with public health experts agreeing that a booster shot bumps up immunity.
“The goalposts have shifted for my 16-year-old,” Chhitwal-Varma said, noting that two doses no longer afford her full coverage against the virus.
She says the most important things from here on out are publicly accessible metrics to determine the safety of schools and access to simultaneous learning for those who don’t want to attend school in person.
“I don’t want my political leaders to be saying things like how they are trying to empower us or [are] so proud of us. Support the school; support the system, invest in the system.”
‘It just makes sense to send our kids back’
In Thunder Bay, Leila Coulter says she has no reservations about sending her four children — 14 and 16-year-old daughters and 10-year-old twin sons — back to school on Monday.
According to a study commissioned for Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, the Ontario government closed schools for longer than any other province — a total of 20 weeks between March 14, 2020 and May 15, 2021.
“It’s really taken a big toll on families as well as the children themselves,” Coulter said.
As in Quebec, Ontario has limited PCR testing to a few high priority groups. And Canadian pediatricians have said that the Omicron variant does not seem to cause more severe illness in children compared to other variants, according to a recent article published in The Globe and Mail.
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“It just makes sense to send our kids back to school, where we know they’re going to thrive and they’re going to thrive developmentally, their health and well-being, academically — all of the aspects that are important to us as parents,” she said.
“I just feel like those benefits far outweigh the risks of the virus itself.”
‘That’s the new normal’
Winnipeg father Abiodun Oke said that it’s great to be sending his children back to school. He’s thought about how the pandemic will affect his children’s schooling, and believes we’ll think about education differently in the future.
“As a parent, you feel like maybe it’s really going to impact their education” when schools shift between virtual and in-person delivery, he said.
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When Manitoba returned to in-person learning on Monday, students at more than 30 schools in Winnipeg participated in a walkout to protest what they say is a dearth of protective measures currently in place against the virus.
Their requests included better masks provided by the province, access to rapid tests and the option for students to continue attending school virtually.
“I think there will be a lot of adjusting to realize that, yeah, that’s the new normal,” Oke said. He himself is a college instructor and said he’s looking forward to having fewer distractions while teaching his own classes from home on Tuesday as his kids, ages five, seven and nine, will be back at school.
‘Parents want to be informed’
One Nova Scotia mother has decided not to send her children back to school today.
“After thinking about it quite a bit over the last week and also with consideration to some of the changes that are being made in schools in Nova Scotia, we decided yesterday finally that we weren’t going to send our kids in,” said Stacey Rudderham, a mother of two from Fall River, N.S.
Her children have each received two shots, but aren’t yet eligible for a booster. While the school used to notify parents about potential exposure to COVID-19, the province said in late December that it would no longer conduct COVID-19 contact tracing in schools. Students who test positive on a rapid test have to notify their principals.
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Rudderham is the co-chair of Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, a parenting collective that mostly organizes through Facebook. On Monday, she heard from several parents whose children called them asking for an early pick-up: the windows in some classrooms were open to compensate for poor ventilation, and the kids were too cold.
For now, her biggest priorities are to get schools to bring back contact tracing and notices about COVID-19 cases. She worries about children bringing the virus home to relatives who are elderly or immunocompromised.
“Parents want to be informed about what’s happening with their kids in their schools, what the risks exposure might be for them and their family.”