He added, “Schools should be the very last thing to close.”
As a vast country with strong regional governments, back-to-school plans in September varied nationwide. For instance, in Quebec all elementary and high school students were required to attend classes in person, with masks required for grade 5 and up. In Alberta, children could return to school physically, or continue to attend online.
In the largest province, Ontario, masked high school students attend smaller classes in person, but only every other day — and often for just a few hours. Meanwhile, younger students are crowded into classes with no additional spacing between desks and, in some cases, no mandatory masks. That prompted protests and petitions by students and parents, criticism by epidemiologists and other experts, and a court case launched by four teachers’ unions, who were concerned their members would be put at risk. Newspapers carried stories about parents creating private education pods, and many feared schools would be shut down again by Thanksgiving.
Instead, currently, only two schools in the entire province are closed due to Covid-19, according to Caitlin Clark, the Minister of Education’s spokeswoman.
“As of today in Ontario — 99.85 percent of the province’s students and 99.92 percent of staff have never had a case of COVID-19, which underpins why schools remain open for learning,” Ms. Clark said in an email.
However, when schools opened in Toronto in September, about 30 percent of elementary students and 22 percent of secondary students in the public school system decided to attend virtually. Since then, those numbers have substantially risen, indicating persistent parental fears despite the expert assurances.
“There’s a reason why a very large percentage of parents and guardians chose not to have their kids in schools,” said Charles Pascale, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto and a former deputy minister of education in Ontario. “That’s the best evidence the school reopening in Ontario was a disaster — mainly because their parents were concerned the safety precautions were not enough.”
Allison Hannaford contributed reporting from North Bay, Ontario