Some parents, students and teachers' associations in Ottawa are voicing opposition to Ontario's plan for students to return to the classroom on Wednesday and are calling for Ottawa's medical officer of health to delay in-person learning.
An online petition urging Dr. Vera Etches to halt the return to class for both elementary and secondary school students by up to two weeks had accumulated nearly 800 signatures by Monday evening.
"They are abandoning the rest of us to a disease that they should not be abandoning us to," said Tim Abray, who started the petition and whose daughter goes to school in Ottawa.
"It's just plain old ludicrous. There is no way the province should be abandoning its responsibilities to the population when it comes to public health."
Yet, Ottawa's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches has been a proponent of keeping schools open. In a statement posted to Ottawa Public Health's website Sunday morning, Etches expressed support for the provincial timeline.
"I have evaluated the evidence and recommendations from my health-care colleagues that being in school is what is best for children, youth, families and the health of our community overall," the statement reads.
'Last thing to close'
Etches told CBC she is weighing the harms associated with online learning, such as higher rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders among students, against the risks of returning to in-person classes.
She said she is open to reassessing her position as more data about the Omicron variant becomes available, but in the meantime she believes in-person learning has the biggest benefit for students.
Etches said she is in talks with the province to bring in stricter measures outside classrooms to address community spread.
"It's that consistency of schools being open that people need to be able to rely on — and they should be the last thing to close," she said.
Instead of closing schools, Etches recommends students limit their contacts and high-risk activities, stay home when sick or if someone in their household is sick, and to wear masks whenever possible.
Sources tell CBC that Ontario cabinet ministers met Sunday to discuss the pandemic response, including the return to classrooms.
Students, teachers call for stronger safety measures
Teachers' associations representing Ottawa's four school boards penned an open letter on Dec. 31 requesting Etches close schools to in-person learning until additional health measures are put in place.
Before classes are allowed to resume, the teachers' associations are calling for:
N95 masks and respirators to be made available to all staff and students.
Education workers and students over the age of 12 years be prioritized for booster shots.
Students aged 5 to 11 receive a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
HEPA filter units be placed in all in-use classrooms.
The Ontario Principals' Council called for similar measures, but in a statement Sunday, said it supports Wednesday's scheduled return to class.
Yet, at least one student says she's worried about what she sees as a lack of safety protocols in place in schools, especially as Omicron-driven cases continue to set new records in the community.
"I've heard from a lot of my peers … saying that they're also very scared and frightened to go back to school — which I don't think should be a sentiment that we have," said Madison Page, a Grade 11 student at Colonel By Secondary School.
Page said she supports demands made by the local teachers' associations and student trustee organizations calling for more youth vaccination and better masks and ventilation before in-person learning begins.
"I don't think students, especially in Canada where we have the resources that we do, should have to risk their safety and that of the community to receive an education," she said.