Back to school in Ontario? The increase in the number of cases leaves some doubtful, but others say that in-person learning is needed.

Tenth grader Elena Rinne can’t help but look at the new daily COVID-19 case count hovering around 10,000 and worry.

She is worried about going back to school next week and having lunch with 200 other students in a closed cafeteria.

She is concerned about the lack of safety protocols and social distancing at her school, where some of her peers and teachers are not vaccinated and the masking requirements are often ignored by students.

But he is also concerned about the possibility of schools closing and the impacts that could have on the mental health of his classmates and friends “who are not safe at home and need school as an escape.”

For Rinne, it feels like early 2020 again.

“I am terrified of going back to school on the 3rd and I was recently talking to my parents about the process to move to hybrid learning,” said Rinne, who lives in Georgina and spent her ninth grade learning online. “I don’t like learning online, but right now I feel like my options are that or go to school and get sick.”

“I feel like there is no real plan to make sure that if we go back to school, we will be safe.”

As back-to-school looms amid an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, so is uncertainty among parents, students, and staff about whether schools should resume on Jan.3 or if a closure Temporary would help curb the COVID numbers and give more students and teachers have the opportunity to get vaccinated or receive a booster and return to school without symptoms.

Many experts, parents and students emphasize that they want schools to remain open, but say more measures are needed to ensure schools are safe as the highly contagious variant of Omicron spreads, including: free N95 masks for all students and teachers, better ventilation in all classrooms, staggered lunch times for high school students, and regular and ongoing rapid exams for all students several times a week.

They also say that working parents and students need guaranteed sick leave in order to isolate themselves in the event of exposure.

But others say schools should be considered an “essential service” and closures should not be on the table as long as shopping malls and gyms remain open.

Bronwen Alsop and her son Liam are photographed outside their home, Tuesday, Nov.30, 2021, in Toronto, Ontario.

“I went through the malls the other day. They are overcrowded. They are full, ”said Bronwen Alsop, founder of the Ontario Family Coalition that opposes school closures, who works as an early childhood educator. “How can they stay open, but the schools, which are essential, can be closed? That makes no sense “.

Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, an Ottawa-based family physician, says there is no easy answer to going back to school.

“For schools to open in January, when we do not have testing capacity, we do not have rapid tests, we do not have PCR tests, there is no follow-up, people do not have adequate masks, that is just saying we are going to put caution aside” said Kaplan-Myrth, who says she decided to keep her 12-year-old home in January.

“That just means that parents who can afford to keep their kids safe will keep their kids safe, and we’re all telling everyone else that we don’t really care if their kids get COVID. And the reality is that their children will. ”

“It really becomes a question of rich and poor.”

Before the holidays, when asked about the possibility of schools closing, Ontario Medical Director of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said they were “not seeing any significant impact on children’s health” with Omicron. and that the province was “committed to keeping our schools open.”

But in just one week since that press conference, the cases have doubled from 4,000 to almost 10,000. Testing capacity for COVID-19 has been overwhelmed and access to vaccine boosters has been spotty and inequitable across the province.

Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said the province has done several things to keep students safe in classrooms.

“Every step of the way, we’ve implemented the advice of the Ontario Medical Director of Health and Science Board, including improving ventilation in all schools, deploying 70,000 portable HEPA units, high-quality masks, thousands of emerging vaccine clinics for students. along with expanded testing options and more staff hired to support safer schools, ”Clark said.

“Our government proactively implemented take-home PCR tests in all schools and 11 million rapid antigen tests directly to all students learning in schools, the only province that does both, as part of our ongoing commitment to protect students, staff and families. “

Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth appears at her clinic, Common Ground Collaborative Care, in Ottawa in November.

But Kaplan-Myrth says that “nothing was done to ensure that all families underwent rapid testing. It was a joke to give five quick tests to each student. It was insufficient. And it was outrageous that they were not released to teachers, educators and child care providers, ”he said.

York region mother Shameela Shakeel believes that a delay of a few weeks in reopening could give the province enough time to implement changes such as staggered lunch hours, regular rapid tests and distribution of high-quality masks, in addition to the temporary closure of gyms and indoor dining at restaurants to slow the spread of the virus.

“I don’t want my children to learn online. They’re not doing well online, ”Shakeel said. “And at the same time, I don’t want educators and students to go back to school in unsafe conditions.”

“And with the number of cases so high, I have already heard some parents say that they could still leave their children at home.”

Alsop, who has children with special needs, said parents who are concerned about the new variant have the option of choosing online school, “but families who need in-person learning don’t deserve to have that option stolen from them again.”

Despite differing views, everyone agrees that the government should not wait until the last minute to make a decision, leaving parents, students, and educators in distress.

“I’m going to wait a few more days to see if the government makes an announcement,” said Rinne, a sophomore.

“But if the numbers keep increasing, I think I could switch to the Internet. The last time I was online it was for the safety of other people, but now I am concerned for my safety. “

Noor Javed is a Toronto-based Star reporter covering city news with an interest in municipal 905 politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved

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