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How schools are pushing through to keep students learning in person despite Omicron

Friday was Matthew Morris’s first day back in class after contracting COVID-19 earlier this month. His Grade 7 students, who returned two days earlier, bombarded the Toronto teacher with one question — but not the one he’d anticipated. 

“‘Can we have gym?’ at least half a dozen times from 9:00 to 9:05,” he recalled, with amusement. 

Morris explained why he’d been gone, but instead of a flurry of questions or the awkward reception he’d expected — they listened nonchalantly and simply moved on. “We kind of rolled right into where we left off in December, so it was definitely a good feeling.”

Still, school is different so far in 2022. Morris came back to some N95 masks — among the new measures Ontario is sending to the province’s education staff — plus new COVID-19 screening guidelines and protocols to review. Just 12 kids turned up for his regularly 27-student class. He estimated that nearly a quarter of his colleagues were absent Friday from his Scarborough, Ont., school.

Morris plans to focus on his students’ mental health and re-establish connections to support their learning. But this next stretch will also be a learning experience for him “just trying to get a feel [for] how to navigate this new environment.”

Classrooms across Canada are looking different than they did just one month ago, as education officials grapple with a tidal wave of Omicron variant COVID-19 cases and severe winter weather blasting various regions. Educators in different provinces shared with CBC News snapshots of what’s going on in their communities. 

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‘Struggling through’

Just days into 2022, when the majority of Canadian regions shifted to remote learning or extended the holiday break, Saskatchewan schools returned to in-person learning. 

A “business as usual” mentality and few COVID-19 restrictions in community settings have meant “we’re paying the price for it in our schools,” according to Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. 

One story Maze heard from teachers after the first week back included 400 Saskatoon high school students sitting “shoulder to shoulder” during lunch in the cafeteria. “And then we wonder why we have high rates of transmission of COVID,” he said. 

Saskatchewan’s ‘business as usual’ mentality and few COVID-19 restrictions in the community have meant ‘we’re paying the price for it in our schools,’ said Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

In the ensuing weeks, there have been temporary closures of schools in Saskatoon and Yorkton, as well as individual classes sent to remote learning in Regina due to multiple positive cases. Extreme winter weather conditions have also added to the coronavirus-related absences of both students and staff. 

In the middle of last week, the Regina Public Schools Division suddenly announced a three-day shift to online for its high schoolers. Coupled with the weekend, Maze explained, the hope was for five days of reduced contacts and time for anyone symptomatic or positive for COVID-19 to recover ahead of final exams on Tuesday. 

“We all want in-person learning to continue. We know that that’s what’s best for students and we know that’s what’s best for teachers. Unfortunately, with no community restrictions and with the kind of lax attitude our government has taken toward COVID-19, we end up forced online in many situations,” he said. 

“It’s really lots of disruptions, not a very effective way to run education, but at the same time, we are still open for the most part and struggling through.”

Students are seen returning to class at Eric Hamber Secondary School in Vancouver on Monday, Jan. 10. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Make schools ‘as safe as they can be’

Prince George, B.C., has seen student and teacher absences since schools reopened for in-person classes on Jan. 10, but no school closures yet, according to Katherine Trepanier, a French Immersion primary teacher and second vice-president of the Prince George District Teachers’ Association. 

Before students returned to classrooms, teachers and school staff were back in class preparing backup lessons and resources, Trepanier said, as well as drafting operational plans for keeping students learning if the Omicron variant takes more educators out of the mix.  

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A few key ways to support teachers and aid in-person learning, she said, would be if teachers received respirators like N95s and had improved ventilation in classrooms, such as portable HEPA air filters. The B.C. Teachers Federation, the union that represents teachers province-wide, has been asking for N95 masks, improved ventilation and other safety changes. Contact tracing of individual COVID-19 cases at B.C. schools has also stopped . 

Trepanier is urging public health officials to redouble vaccination efforts locally, with education campaigns and clinics easily accessible to families.

“We all agree that schools are super important and that they should stay open and children should be able to come and get an education,” Trepanier said. “So if that is the goal, then why not make them as safe as they can be?” 

‘Incredible year of unpredictability’

Further south, in B.C.’s Fraser-Cascade School District 78, the mood inside of schools is mixed, said superintendent Balan Moorthy: “I think people are excited to be back. I think people are exhausted.”

The district — located north-east of Abbotsford and covering a vast area that includes Hope, Agassiz and Boston Bar — has repeatedly endured major disruptions since November. The catastrophic flooding in southwestern B.C., severe road closures in the aftermath and schools playing host to evacuees from nearby communities were followed by the rise of Omicron and, more recently, winter storms and extreme weather

A child jumps on a snowbank outside a school in La Prairie, Que. Thousands of Quebec students returned to in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan. 18, though some parents remain concerned about their safety given the transmissibility of the Omicron variant. (Jean-Claude Taliana/Radio-Canada/CBC)

“Teaching… is an exhausting enough gig,” said Moorthy. “When you add what teachers have had to do amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a whole different field. We’ve asked more from our educators than we could ever imagine.” 

Speaking Wednesday, Moorthy said the district has seen more absences as well. 

“Schools are sitting around 70 or 75 per cent attendance for students. We don’t know if that’s all illness or some people that are just really concerned,” he said. Moorthy also said 20 to 25 per cent of teaching staff were away Wednesday in Agassiz, but the district filled in with other educators and on-call substitutes.

“There’s just been this incredible year of unpredictability, yet I am just amazed at the spirit of our staff and the students of continuing to work through it. They’re showing a tremendous amount of resiliency.” 

‘This is where we want to be’

The country’s largest school division, the Toronto District School Board, returned to in-person learning last Wednesday — delayed two days after a massive winter storm that affected swaths of southern Ontario and parts of Quebec. 

‘We’re super excited to be back in-person. Really, this is where we want to be,’ Mary Zervas, principal of Twentieth Street Junior School in Etobicoke, Ont., said Wednesday. (CBC)

“We’re super excited to be back in-person. Really, this is where we want to be. This is where the kids need to be…. This is where they learn best,” principal Mary Zervas said outside Twentieth Street Junior School in Etobicoke, Ont.

The school — a relatively newer building with a good ventilation system, she pointed out — has HEPA filters in all occupied classrooms, the library and gym. Ahead of the 2021-2022 school year, the province had required HEPA units in all kindergarten classrooms as well as all occupied learning spaces without mechanical ventilation.

Along with the N95 masks newly arrived from the province, “we’re feeling better,” Zervas said, adding that the school will continue with earlier measures such as cohorts.

“We’re in good shape. With the new screening tool, we hope that we can keep going in-person.”

Putting the new measures into place continues to be a work in progress, TDSB spokesman Ryan Bird said Wednesday. 

That will include replenishing the 600,000 N95 masks already sent out, additional HEPA air filters and continuing distribution of rapid antigen tests, which arrived at the TDSB in bulk and needed to be broken down before being sent to schools, then home with staff and students.

The Toronto District School Board continues working to put new protocols and safety measures into place, said spokesperson Ryan Bird. (Angelina King/CBC)

Board officials anticipate more absences due to staff and students having COVID-19 or isolating due to a close contact, Bird said. Beyond tapping into the supply teacher pool, the TDSB is also using different strategies for educator absences, including redeploying centrally assigned teachers and administrators, calling upon retired educators and having other school staffers cover classes. Shifting to remote is a last resort, but a possibility, he added.

“There may be isolated cases where we may have to move a school to remote learning, but as a system, we hope to remain open for the rest of the school year.”

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