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Toronto students head back to class after COVID-19 remote learning, snowstorm

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TORONTO — Parents in Toronto expressed mixed emotions as they dropped their kids off at school for the first time in weeks on Wednesday, saying they were worried about COVID-19 but glad to have their children get back to in-person learning. 

The return to physical classrooms after two weeks of remote learning was delayed by two days for the Toronto District School Board after a major snowstorm hit on Monday. 

Outside an elementary school in the north end of the city, Natasha Chadenga said she was feeling "a lot of trepidation" sending her six-year-old daughter back. 

"It doesn't sound like the (Education) Ministry has put in everything that needs to be put in place to support the schools," she said. "I'm really concerned that in another one week or four days from now, they're going to be sent back home again, with some sort of outbreak in the school.”

Chadenga said she would've preferred if the reopening of schools was delayed a little longer but noted that keeping her daughter home was challenging. 

"Because I am a working mom as well, it wouldn’t be convenient work wise, but I think when you look at the safety of the children and how equipped the schools are, it would’ve been better to delay it at least another week or two," she said. 

The provincial government highlighted updated ventilation systems, the rollout of rapid tests for students and staff, shipments of masks and school-based vaccine clinics as it announced the resumption of in-person learning. 

But recent policy changes mean most teachers and students can no longer access gold-standard PCR tests as the highly contagious Omicron variant strains testing resources. The province is also no longer reporting information about COVID-19 cases in schools but said it will share information about rates of absence — regardless of whether they are virus-related — starting next week.

Public health units will be required to notify families if 30 per cent of a school — staff and students — is absent, but it will not be confirmed whether all absences are due to COVID-19. Many school boards, however, have said they'll share COVID-19 data with families when it is disclosed by staff or students. 

Wendy Xu, whose daughter is in Grade 4, said she hoped her child's school would update families as soon as there are confirmed COVID-19 cases among students or teachers so that she could make a decision about whether to pull her daughter out. 

"We're just hoping the school can update information as quickly as possible ... so we know what to do," she said. 

Meanwhile, Apoorve Jain said he and his seven-year-old son were both excited about the return to school, given how difficult it was to look after his son in the last two weeks of remote learning.

Jain said he's received three shots of a COVID-19 vaccine and his son has received his first shot and is waiting to receive his second. "We feel pretty safe sending him," Jain said.

Katie Wan was also positive as she dropped her son and daughter off for their first day of school in Canada – her family moved here from Hong Kong in late November.

"I’m a little bit worried about COVID, but I think the school will keep them safe, so I think it's OK to send them," she said, adding that her children were looking forward to meeting their teachers and classmates in person. 

"They have been longing to go to school in person."

For some teachers, however, the return to school brought heightened concerns. 

Mary Fraser-Hamilton, a high school drama teacher in Peel Region, said she left work on Wednesday because she felt unsafe. 

"As soon as the bell rang and my first batch of students left my class, I emailed my principal and went to my car because nobody in my school building is as safe as they could be right now," she said.

Fraser-Hamilton said she observed "inadequate masking" and was concerned that rapid tests had not yet been made available to secondary students. She also noted the province is providing students with three-ply cloth masks as opposed to higher grade N95 or surgical masks, which are more protective against the Omicron variant.

"I would like to see a genuine assessment of student safety. And that means reinstating track-and-trace, reinstating access to PCR testing, freer access to rapid testing," Fraser-Hamilton said. 

The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development said it received  notification of the work refusal Wednesday and that an investigation into the incident is ongoing.  

Students had been learning remotely since the beginning of the month after a major surge in COVID-19 cases set in, straining the province's health system and labour force. The government announced last week that in-person learning would resume Monday, although snow hampered those plans for a day or two in many regions. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2022. 

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship. 

Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press