'It's just wonderful': Province reopens lodging at Ontario schools for blind, deaf students

The move offers relief for those struggling with online classes and families who were driving for hours and paying to stay in hotel rooms so their children could learn in-person. But it comes with increased COVID-19 measures and a designation as a high-risk congregate setting.

'It means that we get to be in a place where we are supported,' says student

Jade Ondrik, 18, has been attending W. Ross Macdonald for four years. She said she's excited the province has reopened lodging as online learning doesn't work for her and many of her classmates. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Students at Ontario's provincially run schools for deaf and blind children and youth will be able to stay there overnight again starting Sunday, allowing more of them to take part in in-person learning.

The Ministry of Education announced the return to in-person classes and lodging on Friday, after they were shut down amid concerns around the Omicron variant.

The move offers relief for those struggling with online classes and to families who were driving for hours and paying to stay in hotel rooms so their children could learn with the supports they need.

But it comes with increased COVID-19 precautions and a designation as a "high-risk congregate setting."

Any student who tests positive — or is a close contact of a classmate who has — can't attend class for 10 days. A student who tests positive would also have to leave campus within a matter of hours.

Jade Ondrik was just focused on the good news, Friday.

"We get to go back," said the 18-year-old student at W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, Ont.

"We have a couple more precautions in there, but it's going to be pretty much similar to how it was before, which is awesome."

Student 'thrilled' lodging is back

W. Ross Macdonald is a school for blind, low vision and deafblind students with roughly 150 students, more than half of whom relied on its lodging program to stay at the school during the week.

It's part of the Provincial and Demonstration Schools Branch (PDSB), which includes a handful of schools for students who are deaf, blind or who have particular learning disabilities.

Ondrik, who has completed Grade 12 but is back for a final year, said she and other students at W. Ross Macdonald who advocated for lodging to reopen felt their voices had been heard.

"It's just wonderful and I'm so, so thrilled."

She said she's excited to return to her co-op placement at a nearby elementary school and to get back to choir and other extracurricular activities, when those resume as well. 

Being back in a supportive setting, socializing with classmates and learning in-person allows students to "just be a kid," she said, adding she hopes the ministry has taken steps to educate itself on what students with exceptionalities need.

"It means that we get to be in a place where we are supported and … are able to have a proper education," she said.

"It's literally life. It's something that was taken away but thankfully they are able to be back in that environment where they can continue to learn and grow."

A memo from the head of the PDSB dated Jan. 28 and sent to staff at the schools says overnight stays are set to resume, with students arriving in-person on Sunday night.

However, it also notes that Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health has classified all PDSB lodging as "high-risk" congregate settings.

The designation is due to the "complex needs of some students" the memo adds, meaning enhanced safety measures are in place.

That includes "significant changes" to daily screening and a rule that all symptomatic students and staff will not be able to attend class in-person for 10 days.

A 10-day exclusion from school is also in place for any student or staff member deemed a close contact of someone who tests positive.

Minister stresses 'caution and care'

Stephen Lecce, Ontario's Minister of Education, confirmed lodging will re-open.

"With the support of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, PDSB students will return to in-person learning with enhanced measures in place," he wrote in an email to CBC.

Those measures include access to PCR and rapid tests, N95 masks for staff and HEPA air filters in all classrooms and congregate settings.

W. Ross Macdonald is a school for blind, low vision and deafblind students. It has roughly 150 students, more than half of whom rely on its lodging program to stay at the school during the week. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Lecce added that the schools support some of the "most exceptional students in Ontario" and the province was committed to getting them back in class, "knowing how critical in-person learning is to their academic success, development and their mental and physical health."

That said, the minister noted the government will continue to "demonstrate caution and care for their health and success in the classroom."

The ministry has also said that if a student develops COVID-19 symptoms during the day a caregiver or emergency contact will be required to pick them up within two or three hours, which could be difficult for those who live far away.

If the school were to shut down because of a staffing shortage, the PDSB would coordinate student transport home, so long as they don't have symptoms.

Plans to reunite with friends, teachers

Daren Kler, an 18-year-old student at W. Ross Macdonald, typically stays in lodging but had been trying to learn from his home in Hamilton since the province shut it down at Christmas and he couldn't find a way to get there for classes.

"It really affected my mental health, staying just at home," he said.

"There's nothing to do here, just a few people to interact with."

This is his final year at the school and Kler said he's most excited to be reunited with his friends and teachers.

"There's no barrier in the communication. It makes life a thousand times easier."