Return to School: With virtually all COVID-19 restrictions lifted, students are returning to class

More than two million public school students will return to their classrooms next week at the start of what will hopefully be a much more normal school year, with mask requirements lifted and extracurricular activities revived.

It’s good news after two years of disruption, which has seen frequent classroom and school closures and regular shifts to distance learning across all bodies due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

But when students across the Toronto area return to classrooms on Tuesday and Wednesday, there will be higher levels of virus activity in the community, as well as a heavier strain on the health system, than there was in the last two Septembers.

The Ontario government has also announced the end of a mandatory isolation period for those who test positive for COVID-19, potentially paving the way for some asymptomatic staff and students to return to schools while still infectious.

Most experts agree that this will lead to more widespread use within schools.

“I’m very concerned. If you look at our dashboard now compared to August 2021, you can see across a number of indicators that the risk is much higher. If you look at the number of tests that are positive if you “Looking at the sewage signal, if you look at the number of people in hospital, all of these indicators suggest, depending on which one you’re looking at, this could be five to 10 times worse than August 2021,” he said Dr. Fahad Razak, the scientific director of Ontario’s soon-to-be-defunct Science Advisory Table, told this week: “So we have significantly worse COVID indicators, we clearly have a crisis in hospitals and we are at risk of a resurgent influenza and other respiratory virus season based on what we’re seeing in the southern hemisphere.When you put all of this together this could be an extremely challenging and ha ted fall and winter season.”

Ontario lifted the mask mandate for most institutions, including public schools, in early March and will maintain that policy for the start of this school year.

It also no longer requires schools to publicly report absenteeism information, although some bodies, including the TDSB, will continue to do so.

School boards will also resume distance learning under an Education Ministry decree, but fewer students will be enrolled. In TDSB, about 4,800 students chose online learning this fall, compared to 25,000 last September.

Razak, who is himself a father of two school-age children, told that classrooms are inherently “high-risk environments,” especially in elementary school, where vaccination rates are lower and students are less likely to use “infection-prevention strategies.” use effectively.”

But he said there are some things parents can do to protect their children while ensuring they benefit from a more consistent return to in-person learning.

“For us, for our children, we will ask them to continue wearing quality masks as much as possible. You know, they’re young, so of course as a parent, you do what you can. You may not wear it all the time. But if they can wear it, at least sometimes or most of the time, that’s safer than not wearing it,” he said. “At the same time. We will also do our best to keep them away from school when they are sick. So if they have a cold we will do our tests but we will try to keep them away as much as possible. The third Thing is we still prioritize activities that are in safer environments as much as possible for them so can we meet up with some of their friends and other parents and families in the park instead of an indoor area we keep their social lives upright but only attempt to do so in safer environments.”

Personal learning has been suspended for three school years in a row

Ontario managed to sustain in-person learning for much of the first semester of 2021-2022, but was eventually forced to close all schools for a period of about two weeks in January due to the Omicron variant causing a rapid rise in infections across the board country led province.

This time, educators hope there will be more consistency for students.

At the same time, however, they are concerned about the province’s sudden decision to change isolation guidelines for those who tested positive for COVID-19 just days before the start of the school year.

“You know the government and others campaigning for this change have said that we need to rely on people to make appropriate decisions going forward and wear masks, keep their distance and stay home when.” they have to stay home, but five-year-olds don’t work that way,” David Mastin, first vice president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, who works as a teacher in the Durham area, told this week. “It’s ridiculous when you talk to an elementary school teacher about personal responsibility for something so difficult and important. I mean, these are four and five year olds, they don’t have that self-regulation. Educators or parents can put a mask in a backpack, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into responsible choices that both government and others advocate for.”

Mastin said that, by and large, educators are eager to return to a more normal learning environment, having learned firsthand about some of the shortcomings of online learning through the pandemic.

However, he said some are still “very terrified” of the risk of contracting COVID-19 in classrooms, which he says are unfortunately “perfect sources of transmission for this type of airborne virus”.

“You know, we’re going to have COVID in our schools and it’s just about how heavy the burden is on our healthcare system and the impact that is having on personal learning,” he said. “We have a government screaming that it wants to get back to normal in our schools, blaming teachers’ unions and teachers for possible labor measures when their contracts expire. But the government, on the other hand, is making decisions that could actually jeopardize a stable and uninterrupted return to school in September.”

Goodbye cohorts and mandatory physical distancing

When students return to classrooms this week, they’re likely to be greeted by something resembling a more normal learning environment, where things like cohort formation and mandatory physical distancing are no longer there.

The government will continue to provide N95 masks to educators should they choose to wear one.

An online school screening tool will also be maintained for students who develop symptoms.

The updated guidance is that anyone with new or worsening symptoms should stay home until their symptoms have improved for at least 24 hours or 48 hours in the case of nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, told this week that teachers are most excited about the prospect of a full year of uninterrupted personal learning.

She said the concern is that lifting public health restrictions could ultimately jeopardize that should there be a surge in infections.

She also worried about the spread of COVID in an age group where booster uptake has been slow.

“Just like the general population, we have members who never want to see a mask again. But really the majority of our members would like to have some safeguards in place,” she said. “Everyone wants things to go back to how they were before, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can just go back in.”

Mental health support needed as schools reopen

The regular interruptions in face-to-face teaching over the last three school years did not come without costs.

Experts have said schoolchildren have suffered mentally during the pandemic, with a marked increase in the number of children seeking help for depression and anxiety.

In fact, a survey by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health released last spring found that nearly half of Ontario students (47 percent) reported moderate to severe mental distress in the previous month.

“We’ve seen the increasing mental health challenges, but that’s only true for those people who can identify them, or parents who realize a child may be missing out on learning related to anxiety or depression. So I think we’re dealing with quite a bit as we go into the next week and try to help our kids adjust to the new normal,” Deepy Sur, CEO of the Ontario Association of Social Workers, told CP24 .com Stunning statistics from some of our colleagues tell us that on the front lines, one in three parents now say their child is missing school out of fear. That’s huge.”

As schools reopen, many organizations are working to ensure mental health support is in place to ease the transition for students.

Sur said providing consistent face-to-face learning for the first time since the 2018-2019 academic year will be “incredibly important” when it comes to supporting students who are struggling.

But she also encouraged parents to create a “safe space” where children can freely talk about mental health issues and look out for warning signs, especially in the first few weeks of school.

“My greatest concern is for children who are suffering and children who are suffering in silence and do not receive timely support. Normality (over the last two and a half years) has been replaced by a lot of silent suffering for some and that is the real pandemic,” she said.

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