'A lot of anxiety': Return of in-person learning met with mixed emotions across Windsor-Essex

Schools in Ontario are on track to reopen next week, but many educators and parents across Windsor-Essex have mixed emotions about the move from online learning.

Staffing shortages and a lack of safety measures are top of mind for educators, parents

Schools across Ontario will reopen for in-person learning next Monday, a spokesperson for Premier Doug Ford has confirmed. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

Schools in Ontario are on track to reopen next week, but many educators and parents across Windsor-Essex have mixed emotions about the move from online learning.

Two teachers' unions in the region say they still have major questions left unanswered about the return to in-person learning, and about what makes schools safer than they were two weeks ago.

"There's a lot of anxiety of going back into the classroom," said Mario Spagnuolo, local president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

"The kids need to go back. Kids are lagging behind of where they could have been if we were in person. The missing piece is, are we doing that safely?" Spangnuolo said.

Last week, amid surging COVID-19 cases fuelled by the Omicron variant, the Ontario government moved all publicly funded and private schools to remote learning.

Ford said the government couldn't guarantee schools would be fully staffed, with so many teachers expected to be off sick. The schools were expected to be closed for at least two weeks.

Mario Spagnuolo, president of the Greater Essex Teachers' Federation of Ontario, says staffing shortages are also top of mind in addition to safety concerns as schools reopen. He says right now, there's no "guarantee that we’re going to have a teacher in every classroom.' (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

Ford's Jan. 3 announcement came just days after Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said the return to school would be pushed back but would still be in-person. Moore had said the province wanted to give schools extra time to provide N95 masks to staff and to deploy 3,000 HEPA filter units.

Meanwhile, the realities of staffing shortages and a lack of HEPA filter units and other personal protective equipment have not been resolved in the Windsor region in the last two weeks, according to Spangnuolo.

He said ETFO has not received any confirmation about the number of N95 masks that will be available for staff, and HEPA filters are still not installed in every classroom across the local public school board.

Spangnuolo adds that low vaccination rates among students locally, low booster availability for teachers, and a lack of contact tracing in classrooms are all major concerns moving forward.

Those concerns are also shared by Sumbal Khan, who is a mom of two in Windsor.

Khan's kids are in junior kindergarten and grade seven. She said the idea of returning to in-person learning at this point is taking a toll on her mentally, adding that the return date of Jan. 17 is "creeping up like the cases in Windsor."

She said if her kids are exposed at school and have to isolate, the whole family will be affected.

Sumbal Khan is a mom of two school aged children in Windsor, Ont. (CBC News)

"I cannot continue my work, my husband would have to isolate. And we don't know how many times we will have to isolate, right, when you have two kids," said Khan.

"So it affects the whole family financially and mentally as well," she continued, adding she wishes there was an option for kids to continue online.

In a written statement to CBC News, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government has been preparing for Monday by doing as much as possible "to improve ventilation, provide high quality PPE and expand access to vaccinations."

The statement reads that 9.1 million N95 masks for staff have been shipped out along with more than 4 million three-ply masks for students. Lecce also said an additional 3,000 standalone HEPA filter units have been deployed to schools boards on top of the existing 70,000 HEPA filter units and other ventilation devices already in schools. 

However, the ministry did not provide a breakdown of the resources provided regionally.

"Recognizing the challenges posed by the Omicron, these measures will help stabilize the school workforce as we continue to do everything we can to keep kids learning," reads the statement.

Staffing shortages

For the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), eventual staffing shortages are top of mind as teachers prepare to head back to school Monday.

Erin Roy, president of OSSTF District 9, which covers Windsor-Essex, told CBC News she's unaware of a contingency plan if teachers are unable to come to school with the latest assessment guidelines.

OSSTF District 9 President Erin Roy says the latest uncertainty caused by the pandemic is also affecting students. She says the next week specifically will be challenging as secondary students pivot back to in-person learning in the last week of their semester. She adds at this point, many high school students don't 'really know what regular high school looks like.' (Dale Molnar/CBC)

While COVID-19 isolation guidelines might be keeping teachers home, Roy said she's also concerned about other causes for staffing shortages, citing the "chaos" of the last several months.

"This is the first time in my tenure as president that I'm actually having to field calls from people who are — it's not retirement they're just leaving the profession," Roy said.

"They were hoping things would be better by now and they're not, and they just can't do it anymore," Roy continued.

Lecce is expected to make an announcement Wednesday on preparations underway for the return to in-person learning. He will be joined by Dr. Moore.

With files from Aastha Shetty


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