Thunder Bay

Some families, educators in northwestern Ontario frustrated over another shift to online learning

As students across Ontario prepare to begin at least two weeks of online learning today, some parents and educators in the northwest are frustrated to have their homes again become classrooms.

In latest pandemic restrictions, Ontario schools shut to in-person learning to at least Jan. 17.

Schools in Ontario are returning to online learning, until at least Jan. 17, prompting mixed feelings from some parents and educators in the northwest. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As students across Ontario prepare to begin at least two weeks of online learning this week, some parents and educators in the northwest are frustrated to have their homes again become classrooms.

This will mark the first mass shift to online learning this academic year, after the previous two years had significant disruptions that forced children out of classroom.

Breanna Jones, who lives in Fort Frances and has a seven-year-old daughter, said she was relieved after Monday's provincial announcement due to the increasing case numbers, but acknowledged it will likely be challenging.

"My daughter, she's a very outgoing and social person, so she really likes being around her friends and everything and working in class," Jones said. "It's hard for her to sit in front of a computer all day and pay attention." 

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 appears to be less severe than previous variants. But it's wildly contagious, so many more people are getting it, meaning hospitalizations are going up. It was in this context on Monday that Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a series of new measures, including shutting down indoor dining, cinemas and gyms. Social gatherings will be limited to five people indoors and 10 outside. Ontario schools are also moving online until at least Jan. 17. Quebec had already announced a similar measure. Today, host of CBC's White Coat, Black Art and The Dose, and emergency room physician Dr. Brian Goldman on Omicron, school closures and what such restrictions might actually accomplish.

Coming back from the two-week Christmas holiday, school boards and staff had just a few days to prepare for the shift.

Rich Seeley, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation District A, which represents teachers and occasional teachers in Thunder Bay, said while it's disappointing to have to suspend in-class learning, he's relieved educators won't be put at risk.

"We all saw this coming a month ago. It's really no surprise," he said. "Online learning is not ideal for students or for teachers. We know this — our experience has taught us this, and it was avoidable.

"We requested back in December that there be a clear plan that included prioritizing education staff for boosters, getting the N95 masks into the schools for staff and students alike, expanding access to rapid tests and getting HEPA filters into the classrooms."

Seeley said education unions have been demanding many of those measures for months, and even over a year, throughout the pandemic.

'Forced us to scramble'

Allison Sargent, Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board's superintendent of education, said board staff had anticipated a pivot to online learning after the return from the holiday break, but last week, the province provided assurances that schools would be back in class.

That made it frustrating having to change direction on Monday, she said.

"It has forced us to scramble a bit just to get things organized," Sargent said. "We do have a pretty seamless process in place. We hope we've been pretty transparent with communication with our families and with our staff.

"The bottom line is that it is what it is. It's a ministry directive. We can't change it. We just have to do our best to support our staff and our students through pretty significantly challenging times."

Karleigh Anderson said she's frustrated to have her children return to online learning.

Anderson, a mother of three aged seven, six and four, said it's difficult to attend to all their needs at once while they learn from home.

"I struggled with it, just trying to get my now six-year-old getting used to doing online. She struggled with it so bad," she said. "My youngest wasn't in school … My oldest daughter did all right, but she still struggled at times."

Anderson said she wished there was an option for kids to go back to school.

"My two older daughters are getting vaccinated. Kids over 12 are vaccinated," she said. "The reason parents got them vaccinated was to keep them in school."

With files from Jasmine Kabatay