The Prince Edward Island Teachers' Federation is urging the province to delay a return to in-person learning another week.
In a statement issued Monday, the federation said it's concerned about how safe and sustainable a return to the classroom would be amid the rapid spread of Omicron variant COVID-19 cases in the province.
Schools will be closed until at least Jan. 10 as COVID-19 cases rise exponentially in P.E.I. Classes will move back online starting Wednesday, Jan. 5.
The PEITF said it has asked the government and the Chief Public Health Office to suspend the expected reopening until at least Jan. 17, and that any decision to do so is re-evaluated prior to that date.
'In terms of keeping these buildings running, it's a huge, huge challenge right at the moment.' — Aldene Smallman
"Island teachers certainly made clear back in September of 2020 that they wanted a return to in-person learning if it was safe to do so. So we certainly know that the best place for students is in the classroom," president Aldene Smallman said.
"However, with this Omicron variant, we certainly have concerns around transmissibility."
System collapse looms amid substitute teacher shortage
The statement said there were "genuine fears" an early reopening could cause the system to collapse due to a shortage of substitute teachers — pointing out that a school had to close due to a lack of available teachers during the recent outbreak in the Eastern Kings area late autumn.
"It was definitely a concern even before Christmas. You know, in terms of keeping these buildings running, it's a huge, huge challenge right at the moment," Smallman said.
"The federation has brought this up numerous times. ... Now looking at what we may be faced with in the next few months, it adds a huge strain to the system and we are very concerned. The system can just collapse due to this substitute teacher shortage."
The PEITF also said questions remain as to how enhanced safety measures and contact tracing would work.
"With the contact tracing now being put into the hands of individuals, you know, it is conceivable that not everyone who tests positive would share that information with the school or their close contacts," Smallman said.
"Then also, you know, with privacy protections for the individuals who have possibly contracted the virus, we're concerned ... with gaps in contact tracing and that could add to the spread of the virus."
'Nobody knows nothing'
Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker has called the government to make a clear decision on when schools will reopen.
"Whether or not we close schools, [we should be] allowing families, and parents and children to make the necessary arrangements," he said.
"Really one of the big contributors to mental distress is uncertainty and not knowing."
Some families say they are facing a huge amount of uncertainty while there's no fixed date for in-class learning to resume.
Daniel LeBlanc, parent of four school-aged children, said he's unsure what his family will have to do to take care of the children while they study at home.
"I'm kind of confused of how homeschooling is going to go. We don't have a babysitter or anything like that for homeschooling. I can't take time off because you don't get paid for it. So what do you do?," he said.
"School is supposed to start tomorrow, now it's delayed to whenever. Nobody knows nothing. And where do you stand from there? Who knows?"
Jarek Zawojski, whose son is in kindergarten, said he's not too worried, but that it would be nice to have more time to prepare than just a few days.
"The news always comes quite unexpectedly ... It's more for psychological comfort to know what's going to happen," he said.
"I'm in a comfortable situation, I can stay home, but it's tough to work and look after your small children."
The PEITF said privacy laws would prevent teachers from sharing students' contact information without consent, and there would also be privacy protections for individuals who test positive.
The federation outlined other concerns, including low vaccination rates among students, classrooms where social distancing is not possible and inadequate ventilation systems.
Smallman also said daily classroom gathering sizes of over 20 students are beyond what's acceptable in any other environment, and that student and teacher access to vaccinations, booster shots and N95 masks should be prioritized as part of the reopening plan.
On Monday, the P.E.I. Home and Schools Federation Board said it had an emergency meeting to discuss similar back-to-school concerns.
It said questions surrounding COVID-19, vaccination rates among children due to their age and possible staffing shortages have been sent to the Department of Education, the CPHO and Public Schools Branch.