As Ontario is set to reveal its back-to-school plan for millions of students, parents and teachers remain worried about how children and staff will stay safe when schools reopen.
They're anxious about everything from class sizes and the ability of children to physically distance, to whether teachers should have access to personal protective equipment, to general worries about keeping the transmission of the coronavirus at bay when in-person teaching resumes.
A few were so concerned that they protested outside the office of PC MPP Jeremy Roberts Wednesday, carrying signs calling for more certainty around what school will look like when it reopens in just a handful of weeks.
"We're here because there's no plan for a safe return to school in September," said Mark Chapeskie.
The father of a 22-month-old and a six-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, Chapeskie said that he and his wife were "burned out" from trying to work and teach from home.
"It just doesn't work, it hasn't been working for the last three or for four months," he said, and was looking for assurance that classes would resume this fall, without e-learning.
Plan to be unveiled Thursday
Chapeskie may get some answers Thursday. That's when Education Minister Stephen Lecce is expected to unveil Ontario's back-to-school plan, days earlier than originally planned.
The province had asked school boards to prepare three scenarios for September: full-time in-class learning, full-time online learning, or a hybrid of the two.
In recent weeks, more and more health officials — including Ottawa's own medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches and CHEO — parents and school boards have called for children to return to the classroom five days a week, although staff members have indicated they are more wary of returning to school full time.
On Wednesday, British Columbia announced that most students will return to class in September, with more provinces expected to reveal their plans over the next week or so.
Many questions unanswered
While many want to see children back in the classroom, key questions remain about how that can happen safely during the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Toronto's SickKids — in conjunction with other medical experts, including from CHEO — released recommendations for a retrun to school, which include staggered lunch times, no large assemblies, and mandatory masks for older students.
The SickKids report calls for cohorting, where a group of students avoids mixing with other classes and grades. It's a concept that the educators who attended Wednesday's small protest also support.
Mark McCormick, a vice-president with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, wants to see a plan that includes frequent sanitizing, physical distancing between pupils and cohorts small enough to allow people to teach and learn safely.
"Teachers, education workers, [they] look at the newspaper and follow the media every day with growing anxiety," he said, referring to a recent spike in new COVID-19 cases involving young people in Ottawa.
Grade 4 teacher Clare Hamilton also expressed concerns about class sizes, as she would normally be standing in a room with 28 other people — all of them, she noted, breathing and rebreathing the same air.
"The windows in my classroom don't open very wide and there's only a couple that open, so the airflow is a huge concern," she said.
For Karen Brochu, who teaches French as a second language to young children in several classes throughout the day, the concern is that she will be exposed to many students.
"For me that's the big question mark," she said. "What kind of exposure is everybody willing to live with and be safe at the same time?"
She said the reopening plan needs to account for the fact that grandparents and older parents care for some school-aged children.