Local school boards offer reassurance and options as classrooms set to reopen Monday

Local school boards say the return to in-person learning on Monday will be safe, but for those who don't feel comfortable sending their children back, there will be temporary remote options.

Upper Grand to pilot its own report on absences from schools to keep families informed

Students in Ontario are set to return to in-person learning on Monday. Local school boards say being in the classroom will be safe but if parents have concerns, a temporary remote learning option is available. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

With students set to return to in-person learning on Monday, local school boards will offer an alternative for those who may feel uncertain about children being back in class.

The Waterloo Region District School Board, Waterloo Catholic District School Board and Upper Grand District School Board have announced they will offer temporary, asynchronous learning for elementary students.

Upper Grand said the temporary program is for students who were enrolled for in-person learning. It will provide asynchronous resources for students to work on, meaning there would be no Google meetings with their teachers.

It's being offered to regular programs as well as French immersion students.

"Temporary remote is not intended as a long-term replacement for in-person learning, but to provide an option that supports the continuation of learning while students are temporarily absent from in-person learning and completing work at home," Upper Grand said in a statement to parents and caregivers.

Lila Read, associate director at Waterloo Region District School Board, said the online option will begin Wednesday and is for "families who, for whatever reason at this time, don't feel comfortable having their child attend in-person learning."

She said it's not meant for students who have to stay home in self-isolation or because they're symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19. In those cases, students will continue to be in contact with their classroom teachers to get virtual learning options.

Loretta Notten, director of education for the Waterloo Catholic board, said asynchronous learning will be for those families that don't want to send their children back to the classroom just yet.

"In elementary, what we are proposing is both in the morning and in the afternoon to have a 20 to 30 minute check-in where the student has the opportunity to see their teacher, see their classmates, do a bit of a social check in and hear a little bit of what the learning is intended to be that morning and that afternoon," Notten said. 

"We're going to try to provide that option for approximately four weeks and then see where we're at and [after that] the commitment will be for two weeks at a time."

WATCH | Ontario schools prepare to return to class on Monday.

Safety top of mind as Ontario students prepare to return to class

4 months ago
Duration 1:59
Ontario parents say they're still concerned about COVID-19 safety, as students get ready to go back to in-class learning on Jan. 17.

Plans for return to in-person

Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced this week that students will return to the classroom on Monday, even as COVID-19 cases soar in the province.

He said the government will give students more rapid tests to use and better personal protective equipment, like N95 masks, were sent to schools.

He also said there will also be enhanced screenings for students and staff each morning.

He said vaccination is the best way to deal with COVID-19 an announced there will be school-based clinics in the coming weeks, which would allow students to be vaccinated during the school day with parental consent.

Over the past two weeks, all the local boards reported:

  • N95 masks for teachers and staff have arrived and been distributed to schools. Notten said they have enough for one mask per teacher or staff member per day.
  • More HEPA filtration units arrived, although most schools were updated ahead of the return to school in September 2021. Read said the board expects to receive 70 more units with the province's latest announcement.
  • Rapid test kits are expected to arrive Friday or over the weekend in bulk packaging of 25 kits, which means they will need to be broken down to be handed out to students. Each student is expected to get two kits each, but that may not be possible on Monday morning.
  • Details about in-school vaccination clinics were being discussed with public health this week and details are expected in the coming days.

Daily screening

"Monday is going to look very, very similar to what school looked like prior to the holiday break. The expectation continues that staff and students will self screen on a daily basis," Read said.

The boards all said it's important families take the screening seriously and do it daily.

Secondary school students will have an app to confirm they've self-screened. Elementary students will have a paper or online form to fill out.

"We're asking for high, high vigilance and great care around the self screening for symptoms and to follow the guidance that is there as part of the self screener," Read said.

Notten said there is a "high onus" on students that if they have any symptoms, they need to stay home, especially with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

She said because of changes to the way public health is doing case and contact management, it will be up to individual students and families to inform their immediate close contacts if they develop symptoms or test positive.

WATCH | Education Minister Stephen Lecce says his government used 'every minute of the day' to get kids back to class.

Ontario education minister defends extending remote learning

4 months ago
Duration 2:01
Saying his government used 'every minute of the day' to get kids back to class and ensure their safety, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce outlined the measures put in place during the current two-week school shutdown due to COVID-19.

Upper Grand pilot project

Peter Sovran, director of education for the Upper Grand District School Board, said they have a new system they're piloting to report on absences from schools.

"We have taken a baseline of absences in schools from September to December. And then what we will report on each day is the percentage increase or decrease from that baseline for what we understand to be sort of COVID-related absences," Sovran said.

Absences will be assumed to be COVID-related unless a parent calls into to indicate otherwise.

"We hope that that provides an additional layer of information for families and for staff in the absence of the case counts," he said.

"We look at it as: 'that's our starting point. What can we do reasonably to extend that, to augment that?' It involves a lot of listening to students, to families and staff. What are we hearing from them constantly? And that's why we've taken these extra steps."

Staffing concerns

All the school boards said they have contingency plans if staff become sick or need to isolate.

CSC MonAvenir said its ultimate goal is to keep schools open and is looking for people to apply to be substitute teachers in the French-language board.

Read says the Waterloo Region District School Board will "make every effort" to keep schools open.

"We know how incredibly important that is for our families and certainly for the mental health and well-being of our students. And I just want to reassure our community that we've got multiple layers of occasional staff available and there are contingency plans in place," she said.

Notten said they will mitigate shortages, but ultimately, it comes down to ensuring students and staff are safe.

"It might mean in an emergency situation that we see some students from one class perhaps being subdivided or brought together with another class still trying to keep the classes cohorted, but maybe in the same space so that they're at least adequately supervised," she said.

"It might also mean that on occasion, for operational reasons, we have to close the school and pivot it to virtual [learning], or pivot a particular class to virtual if we really can't sustain the supervision."

Are schools safe?

The officials all said schools are safe for staff and students.

Notten said because case rates are so high in the community, there will be cases in schools – it's unavoidable. But she thinks the measures being taken are appropriate.

"We have a lot more measures and protocols in place in schools than we would have in our homes or just generally in community. And so from that perspective, I do think our schools are pretty safe places to be," she said.

Sovran said Upper Grand has "taken every one of the existing measures, every one of the recommendations and expectations from both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health and we've enhanced them, whether it be with our added units, purchasing our own masks for students" or the new pilot to report on student absences starting next week.

Read says staff and educators are eager to see students again in the classroom.

"We are really looking forward to welcoming students back to in-person learning on Monday and we're ready and we want families to be confident that we have all of the layers of health and safety practices, protocols and layers in place to support student and staff safety," she said.


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