Excitement, delays, cancellations and questions on 1st day of school in Hamilton during COVID-19

Potential delays for public virtual schools, delayed school buses and no local COVID-19 outbreak plan are some of the issues Hamilton schools are wrestling with during the first days of schools reopening.

Despite the rocky start to the school year, students seem excited to return to class

Hamilton's public school students experienced their first day back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday. While students were eager to get back in class, the day was full of complications. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

It's the first day of class in Hamilton's public school board and hours into the day, families are learning their children may not start learning as planned this week.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has added 80 new classes to its virtual school due to a large uptick in students opting at the last minute to online learning, which has prompted it to hire more than 90 new educators.

"We are confident that we will continue to start on time ... [but] as we continue to hire staff, however, some students will have their start further delayed," reads a notice from HWDSB on Monday.

"If you are not contacted today, then a teacher will contact you on Wednesday. Your child's half-day session will be on Thursday, and their first full day will be on Friday. We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate the understanding as the new staff hired will need time to prepare for their new remote assignment."

There may also be delays to online French immersion.

Meanwhile in the Catholic board, some families were told their students had to be picked up from school that same morning due to a large power outage.

St. Joseph Catholic Elementary School, Canadian Martyrs Catholic Elementary School and St. Mary Catholic Secondary School all closed for the day.

These issues were compounded by dozens of hour-long school bus delays and worries about two COVID-19 cases in Burlington and Haldimand County schools — all while Hamilton families are still waiting for their school boards to release the local outbreak plan.

The chaos on Monday hasn't been new with the road to reopening fraught with questions and concern. 

School boards and educators have worked tirelessly to produce a safe reopening plan with sudden changes in direction from the province, but it has done little to comfort families sending children to school.

Issues have been raised about masking, busing, remote schooling, class sizes and cohorting among other topics.

Students excited to return to school

Still, kids seem excited to be back.

"I'm really excited. I think it'll be so nice to be able to have some normal back in my life," Grade 8 student Lilian Bowe previously told CBC.

Social media posts on Monday also show similar sentiments. For some, it was their first day.

"When I watched her put her mask on, take her backpack and walk into that classroom without a single tear or even looking back in my direction, like dang," read a post from Tracey Zimmer, whose daughter went to school on Monday.

"That is how you walk into every new challenge and uncertain situation, even when you feel a bit unsure and afraid."

But it was emotional for some.

"First day of school for our last kid. He got so big so fast. Cried when he got there but I'm sure he'll have fun," read a post from an Instagram user named coach.steve.316.

Some younger students told CBC about how masks were difficult to wear all day while other students had trouble physically distancing outside, but there haven't been any positive cases of COVID-19 in Hamilton schools as of Monday afternoon.

There are also many young students having their first ever school experience online.

About 1,064 kindergarten and Grade 1 students in the Catholic board are using virtual schools along with 1,874 kindergarten and Grade 1 students in public schools.

Mass hiring and masking concerns

In addition to the roughly 90 educators HWDSB is hiring this week, it hired roughly 200 long-term occasional staff (LTOs) in the past two weeks. Peter Sovran, associate director of learning services at the public board, told CBC it was necessary to fill the virtual school, kindergarten classes, Grades 4 to 8 and other needs like maternity leave or teachers taking time off.

Pat Daly, chair of the Catholic board, said HWCDSB hired 50 to 60 full-time and LTOs and have been reorganizing them due to virtual learning.

Educators teaching in-person classes expressed concerns about the number of students not wearing masks, with unions fearing staff members will be exposed to the virus.

Many teachers have done all they can to creatively engage students and make classrooms feel the way they did before the pandemic.

There have also been questions raised about whether schools can provide sufficient supervision outside of class time given all the addiional supervision demands, without going beyond teachers' contractual limits.

"We'll be complying with our collective agreement obligations ... we're planning on having occasional teachers at schools to help supplement and assist with absenteeism but also supervision," Daly explained.

"Supervision, for variety of reasons, has been a challenge for schools for sure, and principals and teachers have done a fantastic job this year. Has the issue been exacerbated this year? For sure, and that's why we stay in close contact with [unions]."

Sovran echoed Daly's comments, but added principals would try to supervise, but if they can't do it alone, would ask staff for help.

"Under those circumstances, a staff member would be assigned to continue supervision directed by principal for the purposes of heath and safety of students, respecting the fact that it does go above and beyond of what's in the collective agreement," he said, noting he's confident there won't be too many issues.

"By and large, most schools have fewer students."

On Wednesday, schools are set to start their regular schedules during the pandemic.