Students across Ontario logged in to virtual classrooms as a new school term began Wednesday, triggering renewed frustration for some families who said their children have a tough time with remote learning.
The Ontario government announced the shift to online schooling on Monday, mere days after saying in-person classes would resume. As an Omicron-driven wave of infections threatens the health system, the province said virtual learning will take place until at least Jan. 17.
Ottawa parent Stephanie Mitton said she's lost count of how many times her eight- and 10-year-old daughters have had to shift to online learning since the pandemic began. She worried this round will present learning difficulties and mental health challenges, just as previous school closures did, adding her older daughter called the return to remote learning a "mental health killer."
"It's just such a stressful time," she said. "We've done it before and we know how hard it is."
Mitton added that she made the difficult decision to shift from full-time work to part-time last spring to help her younger daughter, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, navigate online learning.
Ramona Gnanapragasam, a single mother with a five-year-old daughter in kindergarten and a 10-month-old son in daycare, said she proactively told her employers that she may have to move her work schedule around if schools went online.
Now that they have, she's helping her daughter with school during the day and largely working night shifts at her jobs in retail, long-term care and at a retirement home – her mother and sister help with child care while she's away.
Having to juggle work and taking care of her children has left her with zero downtime, she said.
"That mental break that you have, especially for any single parent with kids, it's not there," Gnanapragasam said.
"It takes a toll, because you want to give your child the best love and care, but when you can’t get yourself together, it affects them too."
Guelph, Ont., parent Christina Crowley-Arklie, whose four-year-old son was beginning virtual learning for the first time Wednesday, said she was "disappointed" with the government’s decision to abruptly shift to online learning.
"We understand you have the physical safety of our children as number one priority, but there's this whole conversation on mental health of our children and our students ... and I feel right now that’s being jeopardized," she said.
Sara Austin, founder and CEO of Children First Canada, a charitable organization that advocates for children, said school closures have a "devastating impact" on kids' education as well as their physical and mental health.
Austin said there should be a "laser-like focus" to get schools reopened and that governments should involve children more in the policymaking that affects their lives.
Teachers' unions are calling on the province to implement a host of measures to ensure a safe return to classrooms, including prioritizing booster shots for staff, making rapid tests available to everyone in schools, improving ventilation, and continuing case count reporting and tracing at schools.
Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation president Karen Littlewood said there are widespread frustrations with having to revert to online schooling once more, but there’s a "slight sense of relief" at in-person learning being delayed since many of the safety measures called for are not currently in place.
"(Teachers) are, like many of us, reluctant to have to go online again because the best way to have learning is face to face," Littlewood said. "The government has not done what they needed to do to make sure that the schools are going to be safe."
Littlewood also noted that some educators returned to schools in-person to teach students with significant needs and said they had expressed feeling scared as COVID-19 case counts soar.
Education advocacy group People for Education said school staff are having a tough time adjusting to the online pivot given the "rapid pace of change and the lack of time for preparation.”
"This has taken a toll on the staff who have worked well beyond their regular responsibilities as educators to try to help in these capacities. There is a toll that is beyond professional and that transcends emotional," the group said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it's a "disgrace" that the province has yet to implement safety measures many have called for, including prioritizing vaccines for educators and improving ventilation in all classrooms.
"We're now almost two years completely into this (pandemic) and the government still has not done what was necessary," she said.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said 3,000 HEPA filter units have been purchased for schools, in addition to the more than 70,000 units in schools at the beginning of September, and more than 2,000 new staff are projected to be hired "to support student safety and learning."
"Our government will continue to invest in quality ventilation and PPE, while ensuring students receive teacher-led live online learning during this time and full access to school based academic and mental health supports," he said in a written statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press