Sudbury·Audio

Sault Ste. Marie teachers happy with local decision to close high schools, want elementary kids sent home too

High schoolers in Sault Ste. Marie continue to learn online, under a local public health order that overrules the provincial plan. And teachers are hoping more students will be sent home in the face of rising COVID-19 numbers. 

'I think people do need to look at their area and make decisions that are best for them'

Students at Sudbury Secondary School wait for a bus wearing masks, while it was deemed unsafe for their counterparts in Sault Ste. Marie to go to class with rising COVID numbers. (Erik White/CBC )

It is the second day back in class for almost all students in northeastern Ontario.

High schoolers in Sault Ste. Marie continue to learn online, under a local public health order that overrules the provincial plan.

And some teachers are hoping more students will be sent home in the face of rising COVID-19 numbers. 

"It doesn't make much sense to be under a provincial lockdown where you're being instructed not to leave your own home, but yet students can hop on a bus, report to school," says Darrell Czop, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association in the Algoma district.

He wonders why public health officials placed the health and safety of secondary students and teachers over those in elementary schools.

Algoma Public Health is advising all parents to keep their children at home to learn online, but decided against issuing a elementary closure order like it has for high schools. 

Rose Burton Spohn, director of education for the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board, says early signs are that many parents are following that advice. 

"Many of the reports we're receiving back so far are that very few students are actually in class," she says.

Czop says his elementary members are facing increased workload teaching students both in the class and online. 

"There was a lot of anxiety and concern heading back into the schools today," he says.

Classrooms at Sault Ste. Marie high schools have been ordered closed until Jan. 25, but schools in the surrounding towns of Desbarats, Elliot Lake, Blind River and Wawa remain open. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation president Terri Lyn Della Penta says she was pleased for her members in Sault Ste. Marie who are now working from home, but worried for the elementary support staff she also represents. 

"Surprised that they did keep the elementary schools open," she says.

Burton Spohn says public health and school officials were worried that not every family could look after children at home if elementary schools were shuttered as well.

"We received feedback on both sides. Some parents were very concerned that students would be going back into an in-person environment and other parents were very concerned that schools would be closed," she says.

"Because many families don't have choices."

Burton Spohn says the discussions with public health came out of the "confusion" around the province's decision to extend the lockdown in northern Ontario, but re-open all schools as scheduled. 

Algoma District School Board chair Jennifer Sarlo is happy that local leaders could come to a "wise and prudent" decision. 

"I'm thankful for our local flexibility," she says. 

"I think people do need to look at their area and make decisions that are best for them."

Some teachers would like to see elementary schools in the north also closed in the face of rising COVID numbers, but there are concerns about families without child care options. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Glen Hodgson, the union president for English public high school teachers in the North Bay area and the parent of two teenagers, says the decision in the Sault is another example of how the province doesn't know how to run an education system during the pandemic. 

"I get why parents would be confused or concerned," he says. 

"We don't understand the decision making and it appears this government has no plan to control the pandemic."

Chantal Rancourt, the president for English Catholic elementary teachers in the Sudbury area, says her union has the same concerns it had at the start of the school year in September.

She'd like to see mandatory masks for all students, smaller classes to allow for physical distancing, better ventilation in school buildings and COVID tests for asymptomatic students who may be unknowingly spreading the virus. 

The medical officer of health for Algoma has overruled the province and decided to close high schools and have students learn online. The CBC's Erik White joined us with a look at the decision and how it's being received. 8:33

"Members are actually very worried about getting the virus. It's a realistic fear," Rancourt says.

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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