On January 17, 2022, schools in Ontario are expected to reopen to accommodate face-to-face classes for students across different grade levels. The increase in COVID-19 cases in the first week of January due to the Omicron variant required schools to shift from face-to-face instruction to remote learning. As such, the closure of schools was a necessary step to curb the number of COVID-19 cases. This also provided more time to prepare the facilities and ensure that they could safely reopen classrooms. N95 masks will be made available for the staff, and HEPA filter units will be installed throughout the buildings. The reopening of the schools despite the threat of the Omicron variant is in line with the priority of the government to provide a better learning environment for students compared to what they receive through online learning. The Canadian Pediatric Society, the Ontario Medical Association-Pediatrics, and the Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario also support the reopening of schools.
Are Schools Ready to Reopen?
As cases continue to rise, staff members are also affected by the virus. They themselves or their family members have caught COVID-19 and would need time to recuperate and prioritize their health. This results in a lack of manpower to fully operate schools and create a conducive environment for learning. In response, teachers who have retired can resume work or extend their tenure. In an agreement between the Ministry of Education and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, retired employees, such as teachers, principals, and vice principals, can work for 95 school days to fill in the gap created by the shortages in staff. This will provide more income opportunities for retirees on top of the pension that they currently receive. The Ontario Teachers’ Federation also states that the creation of a safer working environment can encourage those in the working age group to seek employment in schools. This should involve precautions such as social distancing, prompt testing of individuals for COVID-19, decreased capacity in classrooms, and having quality face masks available for both personnel and students. By attracting those in the younger age group, there might be no need to call on retirees to address the problem.
However, the plan to reopen schools has been met with opposition by some politicians and healthcare workers. The opening of more institutions could exacerbate the current situation and, later on, overwhelm the healthcare system. Recently, Ontario had an additional 9,706 COVID-19 cases, with 438 patients requiring intensive care and 2,467 others requiring hospital care. There is also a need to improve the data for COVID-19 infections in schools and child-care centers. Having such information can help stakeholders make decisions based on evidence and, thus, prevent the detrimental consequences of opening schools too early. According to Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, the government cannot prioritize the reopening of schools without controlling the number of COVID-19 cases. As such, there should be enough time for the preparation of the reopening of schools, and it should go hand in hand with addressing the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the province. This will require great and coordinated effort that may not be sufficiently accomplished in the next 7 days, prior to the target reopening of schools.