Schools in northern Ontario set to reopen to in-class learning on Monday

·3 min read

Meredith Coulas has several lessons planned for students returning to her classroom, but none so pressing as how to protect themselves against COVID-19.

Coulas teaches French immersion in Sudbury, Ont., and her collapsed class of Grades 1 through 3 will be returning to in-person learning on Monday. She wants to take a little extra time to review all the safety protocols as her students, like children across northern Ontario, come back to the classroom for the first time since December.

"I probably will try to get to school a little bit earlier, for my own sanity, just to ensure that my classroom is setup," said Coulas. "I will be reviewing all my safety protocols but I'll also spend a few minutes in the classroom, or maybe longer than a few minutes, reviewing with the children. ...some kids probably haven't left their house or apartment in the past three weeks."

The provincial government announced on Thursday that schools across southern Ontario would not be returning to in-person classes on Monday as planned, but would instead continue attending classes remotely until at least Jan. 25.

In-class learning will resume on Monday in the northern half of the province, where positivity rates for the novel coronavirus are comparatively low.

Coulas said she expects her class will be smaller than it was in December, as parents become more cautious with COVID-19 numbers on the rise in the Sudbury. The local public health unit reported 19 more local cases on Saturday for a total of 64 active cases.

"Not everyone is comfortable going back," said Coulas. "There are lots of people that I know that are very concerned."

Leonard Grey, who teaches in the Near North District School Board outside of Huntsville, Ont., has been back in class since Wednesday. He teaches special education, which was allowed to resume in-class learning earlier in northern parts of the province.

Grey said he expects his school will smoothly return to the cohort-based system it has been using since September when regular classes resume on Monday. He said the biggest challenge will be reminding children that they have to maintain physical distance at all times.

"Kids, especially in the younger ages, love to be together, love to hang out," said Grey. "Kids are used to close physical contact, whether they're playing out in the yard, playing on equipment. It's really strange to operate under those rules for the kids."

Grey said his biggest challenge as a teacher has been finding ways to turn group-based assignments into individual projects.

Lessons on preparing simple meals, for instance now look radically different. Grey said he must now dole out ingredients and utensils individually rather than allowing students to share materials as they have in the past.

The Near North District School Board straddles different public health units. The North Bay Parry Sound District Public Health Unit reported 23 active cases of COVID-19 in the region on Friday. The neighbouring Simcoe-Muskoka Health Unit, which includes the Huntsville area, reported 1,164 active local cases that day.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2021.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press