Schools set to open: Students, parents, teachers on edge, with 'Herculean tasks at the 11th hour'

Hamilton schools reopen in days. Educators, parents and students are still looking for answers and school boards try to finalize plans after a tumultuous few months with constant change coming from the Ministry of Education.

School boards say there is a lot at stake as they prepare to reopen schools this week

Hamilton schools open at the start of September, after a summer full of twists and turns that have left educators, parents and students on edge. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

In days, Hamilton students will get to sit in classes and be taught face-to-face for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic changed our world and closed schools in March.

Others will continue to learn through laptops and tablets in brand new virtual schools. And some aren't trusting school boards with education this year, resorting to home schooling and tutors.

It's an unprecedented set of circumstances in a unique school year, with many re-opening details still not finalized, despite some students starting as early as Wednesday.

A smooth re-entry into schools is paramount for Hamilton's recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic but the path to the school reopening has been full of twists and turns.

The lingering uncertainty and barrage of sudden changes has put parents, students and educators on edge.

"There's a lot at stake," Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board director of education Manny Figueiredo told CBC.

COVID-19 forced education to transform in March, with students turning to online-only learning. Since then, it has been a scramble for the province and school boards to try and prepare for September.

School boards were forced to create multiple plans as educators and parents waited for updates in the summer months.

In August, school plans began to evolve each week, leading to more questions than answers.

The boards began implementing mandatory masking, creating virtual schools and pulling money from reserves to rapidly add more staff and teaching spaces. Then, boards introduced reopening plans, only to change them.

Days ago, teachers finished training. They also learned who, what and where they would teach.

Over the long weekend, the boards grappled with busing while caretakers and staff worked into early morning hours shifting around desks, putting up COVID-19 posters and stickers around schools, and delivering masks and hand sanitizer.

"Tuesday will be a critical time to say, 'Were there any gaps?' " Figueiredo said.

High school students traditionally might sit in groups to facilitate discussion during class but now desks are set up to be two metres apart. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Pat Daly, chair of Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, said everyone is in uncharted territory.

He, like Figueiredo, admits there have been many sudden changes, but also said he has confidence in the plan. A delayed and staggered approach to reopening is a big contributor to that confidence.

"The last six months, generally speaking, have not been the environment that was healthiest for children for social and mental health. I really think a successful and safe reopening is for sure better for children," Daly explained.

Later this week, the boards and public health will release more details about the region's outbreak approach in schools.

Parents, educators and students on edge

While school boards have worked relentlessly to gain the confidence of parents and educators, doubts and concerns persist.

About 17 per cent of public school students and 16 per cent of Catholic school students are learning remotely.

Hamilton Public Health has also said a COVID-19 case in schools is inevitable.

"We shouldn't consider that a failure if that does happen because we are living in a world with COVID-19," Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health said last week.

"We're not in a state to eliminate COVID-19 yet, but are doing what we can to keep the risks low."

Public health nurses are helping local schools follow safety protocols. Figueiredo said they were touring schools last week.

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Still, more than 800 parents, educators and students reached out to CBC with concerns about the reopening plan. Most of them expressed confusion, frustration and fear around issues throughout the summer and issues that may arise in the fall.

"I do not feel that it is safe for my children to return to the classroom," said one parent of a student in HWCDSB.

Parents listed a number of concerns including registration issues, mandatory masking for students, a COVID-19 outbreak plan, student mental health, supporting learners with special needs and a lack of clear communication from schools.

Even students told CBC they are worried.

"I don't think kids my age will follow regulations," read a comment from a user who says they study at an HWCDSB high school.

A student who says they're in the public board added, "I need to get the best marks possible to submit for university, and this messed up schedule isn't helping."

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Educators, many of whom have kids, also expressed worries about how to implement the proposed plans.

"There has been a serious lack of communication to staff about what we are required to have ready for students," said someone who claims they are an HWDSB educator.

A person who says they are an educator in Niagara's Catholic school board wrote about their fear of infection.

"I am very concerned with our safety. Will I bring an illness home and potentially infect my family?"

Figueiredo and Daly both emphasize that although things are different, staff are committed and excited to teach again and that the school boards will support them.

Not enough provincial support

Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local told CBC the "Herculean tasks at 11th hour" could have been avoided. He said he was up at 1 a.m. on Friday planning reopening with the public board. When he woke up at 8 a.m., teams were still planning.

The late nights have been more frequent this summer.

"The province did not help matters. Last minute announcements, changing policies and decisions, a lack of true funding and direction really hampered this," Sorensen said.

The four major teachers' unions have also headed to the province's labour board, alleging that Ontario's school reopening plan violates its own workplace safety laws.

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Daryl Jerome, president of the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said most questions now are about carrying out the teaching.

"Our members are still working diligently to wrap their head around what their day will look like and what their student's day will look like," he told CBC.

"The actual planning for classes and what the year looks like is going to be largely done during this week."

He said that is especially true for classes like art, music and physical education.

"I'm not confident we have a consistent answer on things like that."

Schools enter 'new world'

The next big tests are how schools navigate teaching during a pandemic and positive cases of COVID-19 among students and staff.

"Our sincerest desire is no one gets sick, but if that happens I cannot imagine anyone could lay that at the hands or feet of our teachers ... if we had known directions and if we had proper funding, all of this could have been solved back in June." Sorensen said.

Figueiredo said schools are prepared to adapt if they need to and will do a better job than they did in March.

"I'm excited to visit schools and see the environments and see staff engaging with kids," he explained.

"That's our key priority, to be in schools and measure how things are going in this new world in our schools."

Attention parents, students and teachers: We want to hear from you!

We hope you'll use this form to tell us about school conditions, how classes are going or whatever other pressing issues are on your mind this September in Hamilton, Niagara, St. Catharines and Burlington.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.


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