MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Children carrying brightly coloured backpacks laughed and chatted excitedly Tuesday morning as they lined up outside a Toronto-area school, waiting for the bell to ring on Day 1 of the first school year to start without COVID-19 restrictions since the pandemic hit.
A few steps away, groups of parents also caught up with each other, some with dogs and younger children in tow as they stood near the entrance of Westacres Public School in Mississauga, Ont.
"It's really nice to see the familiar faces again ... so I think that's one of the things I'm happiest about, the sense of community that we kind of get back from trying to return to normal life," said Mansi Vagt, whose four-year-old son was going into senior kindergarten.
Her son started the last school year in person, with masks, but had to switch to remote learning in January during the COVID-19 wave fuelled by the Omicron variant, she said. He's now "thrilled" to be coming back in person, she said.
While it's important to be cautious and mindful of any future developments in the pandemic, including potential new variants, "it's just really nice to see the kids back at school and back with their friends and back with their teachers," Vagt said.
"It's a whole different world than them being online and stuck in front of a screen."
For the first time since the global health crisis began, the school year is starting with students in the province – who resume class Tuesday or Wednesday depending on the district – able to attend class without wearing a mask, while in-person lessons will trump remote options.
Students will also have access to extracurricular activities, as the province's education minister stressed the need for the return to the "full student experience" earlier in the summer.
After a much-needed break over the summer, the return to in-person learning provides helpful structure, said Julie Kalantzakos, who dropped off her four children at Westacres on Tuesday.
Her two youngest, five-year-old twin boys, were "a little hesitant" about coming back to school, but her two eldest, an eight-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl, "just ran off this morning, happy," she said.
"I think everyone's ready to get back into the routine of life and some order and for the kids themselves just to see their friends and school is their second home," Kalantzakos said.
Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to COVID-19 measures, and Kalantzakos said she teaches her children to respect other people's boundaries. Personally, she said, "we're ready for a normal school year."
Lynda Dalzell said her twin 10-year-old daughters were also excited to go back to school on Tuesday.
"I thought they might be a little bit nervous after a really fun kind of summer, but they were excited, they were happy to see friends they haven't seen in a couple months," she said.
"I think it's really important for them to be here every day and kind of doing their thing with their peers, I think that's a big part of growing up," she added.
Dalzell said issues surrounding COVID-19 measures aren't "at the forefront" of her mind right now, and she's instead trying to focus on the positive aspects of the return to school.
"If we get sick, we'll roll with it," she said.
Ontario's top doctor announced last week that people who test positive for COVID-19 no longer have to isolate for five days, but can return to work or school once their fever is gone and their other symptoms have been improving for at least 24 hours.
Dr. Kieran Moore said people should wear a mask for 10 days after the onset of symptoms and keep up-to-date with their vaccinations, calling the combination a "pragmatic and practical" approach for work and school environments.
He also pointed to better ventilation and environmental cleaning in schools, combined with the level of immunization across Ontario, in saying the province can now take a "more permissive approach."
However, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation have said they're worried allowing children and educators to return to the classroom while still potentially contagious could cause the virus to spread faster in schools.
Some health experts, including members of the province's now-dissolved science advisory table, have also raised concerns about the changes, particularly in light of the new school year and the expected return of other seasonal viruses.
"Millions of kids across the country will be now coming into these indoor settings and that is a setting where viral spread will become easier to occur,'' Dr. Fahad Razak, the science table's scientific director, said last week.
Timothy Sly, a professor emeritus with Toronto Metropolitan University who studies communicable diseases, said time will tell how much COVID-19 cases rise this fall.
"From the epidemiology point of view, I would prefer to them to retain the five days of isolation," he said Tuesday. "But from the public health point of view, to look at the larger picture, is it necessarily going to help if kids are staying away from school, say several times during a term possibly?"
When asked about the risk of spread in schools, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Tuesday he expects students "to stay in school right to June in a much more stable environment."
Opposition politicians, meanwhile, said the province hasn't done enough to promote COVID-19 immunization in children ahead of the school year.
"I'm concerned that the government isn't making this as enough of a priority. It's clearly key to keeping our schools open," NDP education critic Marit Stiles said Tuesday.
The government made a third dose available to those between the ages of five and 11 last week.
- with files from Allison Jones and Maan Alhmidi.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2022.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press