Parents and teachers in four provinces are bracing for students to return to the classroom on Monday as the Omicron-fuelled wave of COVID-19 continues to spread and questions remain about how prepared schools really are for a full-scale return.
Students in Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s largest provinces, will resume in-person learning after their governments delayed their return in the face of record-setting case numbers over the holidays.
While public health experts, parents and officials agree that in-school learning is best for children, school boards, families and unions say they’re preparing for an increase in staff absences because of the virus — with some expressing concern that not enough has been done to ensure they can keep operating safely.
In a letter to members over the weekend, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario president Karen Brown said educators from across the province have expressed a range of emotions about heading back to class amid this fifth wave of the pandemic, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Without a doubt, it has been <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/ETFO?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#ETFO</a> members’ dedication to their classrooms and the public education system that has sustained so many students and their families during these challenging times. <br><br>Letter from <a href=”https://twitter.com/ETFOpresident?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@ETFOPresident</a> to <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/ETFO?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#ETFO</a> members: <a href=”https://t.co/ZnSUeEDurM”>https://t.co/ZnSUeEDurM</a> <a href=”https://t.co/HL622tlthg”>pic.twitter.com/HL622tlthg</a>
“Some members are enthusiastic and feel safe, others are cautiously optimistic, and some are anxious,” it reads.
Manitoba and Nova Scotia will also send kids back to the classroom on Monday, with Nova Scotia being the only province in the Atlantic region to be doing so.
Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney cast doubt on whether schools will be able to stay open for the week, pointing out that kids had to be sent home early before the Christmas break because of staffing levels — and that was when caseloads were lower than they are today.
“The pressure that Omicron presents hasn’t lessened, it’s gotten worse,” he said.
Rather than send students back to school on Monday, Wozney suggested that the province should have taken a more cautious approach as its neighbours have done until COVID-19 case levels become more manageable.
One of the problems, he said, is the dwindling list of available substitute teachers, which is even more of an issue in rural areas than in the provincial capital of Halifax.
“We do not have the people to sustain in-person learning for any prolonged period of time,” Wozney said. “We’ve made that abundantly clear to the [education] department.”
School boards in Ontario have also warned parents to expect possible returns to remote learning as they try to manage both infection and staffing levels in classrooms.
To keep schools open, Ontario and Nova Scotia plan to provide students with rapid antigen tests.
The move comes at a time when Ottawa tries to ensure the 140 million tests it promised to send provinces this month arrive on schedule, as it works with 14 different suppliers and battles supply issues as demand for the tests has soared.
Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government also plans to rely on rapid testing to keep students in school and says it’s still working on ventilation upgrades at many buildings.
Improved air quality and access to better masks were chief among the concerns parents, educators and doctors wanted governments to address before kids went back to class.
In Quebec, for example — where updated guidelines say schools won’t need to shut down in the event of an outbreak but can move online if more than 60 per cent of students are isolating — some parents have denounced the fact that N95 masks are being reserved for “specialized schools” but not every one.
Contact tracing also remains an issue. In Manitoba, those infected in schools will not be able to count on officials to notify their close contacts. Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, said at a briefing last week that the virus is simply spreading too fast.
He also state that the risk of children becoming severely ill from the Omicron variant is is low.
The mass return to in-person learning comes after Health Canada reported less than four per cent of children in the country aged five to 11 were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday, with nearly 50 per cent having received at least one dose.
At the same time, nearly 90 per cent of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated in Canada, while provinces race to get booster shots into as many arms as possible to battle the current surge.
What’s happening across Canada
With lab-based testing capacity deeply strained and increasingly restricted, experts say true case counts are likely far higher than reported. Hospitalization data at the regional level is also evolving, with several provinces saying they will report figures that separate the number of people in hospital because of COVID-19 from those in hospital for another medical issue who also test positive for COVID-19.
For more information on what is happening in your community — including details on outbreaks, testing capacity and local restrictions — click through to the regional coverage below.
You can also read more from the Public Health Agency of Canada, which provides a detailed look at every region — including seven-day average test positivity rates — in its daily epidemiological updates.
In British Columbia, a union that represents front-line workers in the community health, retail, industrial and hospitality sectors is calling for increased safety measures and bonus pay as COVID-19 case counts continue to surge in the province.
In the Prairies, Saskatchewan on Sunday surpassed 100,000 confirmed infections since the start of the pandemic. In Alberta, the provincial government plans to rescind a public health order barring health-care workers from working at more than one continuing-care facility by mid-February, if not sooner.
In Ontario, most long-term care workers have just under two weeks to get their third COVID-19 vaccine doses, but union and industry groups say more time is needed to meet the government’s target as staff infections reach record levels and workers struggle to access appointments.
In Quebec, hospitalizations in the greater Montreal area are expected to peak in the coming week, according to projections from the province’s public health research institute.
In Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia on Sunday reported that 68 people are in hospital because of COVID-19, including 10 in intensive care. Another person in Newfoundland and Labrador has died from COVID-19 and three more people have been hospitalized. New Brunswick saw four more deaths, and hospitalizations jumped to 115. And Prince Edward Island‘s Department of Health and Wellness is asking Public Schools Branch staff to provide resident care support at private Charlottetown nursing homes amid a “critical staffing shortage.”
In the North, municipal services in the Nunavut capital, Iqaluit, that were closed due to an outbreak will reopen on Monday. Meanwhile, Yukon says it will introduce new public health measures on Tuesday due to an Omicron surge.
What’s happening around the world
As of Sunday, roughly 326.6 million cases had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.5 million.
In Europe, France’s parliament approved a law on Sunday that will exclude unvaccinated people from all restaurants, sports arenas and other venues, the central measure of government efforts to protect hospitals amid record numbers of infections caused by Omicron.
In Asia, the Chinese city of Xi’an has gradually begun lifting restrictions after more than three weeks of lockdown as authorities sought to stamp out a local outbreak before the start of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 4.
In the Americas, COVID-19 infections are soaring again at U.S. nursing homes because of the Omicron wave, and deaths are climbing, too, leading to new restrictions on family visits and a renewed push to get more residents and staff members vaccinated and boosted.
In Africa, a shipment of 1.1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Rwanda on Saturday included the billionth dose supplied via the COVAX program, the UN health agency said.