Should they stay or should they go? Ottawa parents wrestle with decision to send kids to school

·3 min read
Ottawa Public Health says 98 per cent of schools in the city are currently outbreak-free.  (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
Ottawa Public Health says 98 per cent of schools in the city are currently outbreak-free. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

Many Ottawa parents are choosing to keep their kids home from school this week, even though the city's medical officer of health has deemed it safe to send children to class despite increasingly worrying COVID-19 trends.

On Sunday, Dr. Vera Etches and her counterparts from Toronto and Peel Region penned a letter to the provincial government asking for stronger COVID-19 measures beyond the "emergency brake" currently in place.

The letter urged a shift to online learning in areas experiencing significant school outbreaks, but in a separate letter to Ottawa school boards on Tuesday, Etches clarified that in her opinion, that doesn't include this city, where 98 per cent of schools are currently outbreak-free.

Both Toronto and Peel Region have since announced they're closing schools, and some parents believe Ottawa should follow their lead.

"When I see officers of health saying that the numbers are horrific, obviously that's enough to have a pause for me," said mother of two Sarah Brown, who's opting to keep her seven-year-old home this week.

Amy Gibson, who lives with an autoimmune disease, said she decided at the last minute to keep her six-year-old son home from senior kindergarten at Devonshire Community Public School.

"As I was getting ready to bring [him] to school, I just thought, it's been a long weekend, he's going to be off school all next week because of the spring break, why send him for a couple of days? Who knows what he could be exposed to?"

CBC has heard from many parents who have the choice to keep their kids home, and who have decided to do so. Among them was ICU nurse Alicia Robblee, who's calling on the province to vaccinate teachers and other school staff.

"Part of my decision in keeping Reid home is to keep him safe, but I really feel badly for teachers right now who are in a place of risk, and I hope that they get vaccinated soon," Robblee said.

In a statement Tuesday, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation urged the province to move to online learning, while the Children's Health Coalition wants schools to remain open, but stricter measures to get community spread under control. Both organizations are asking for vaccines for education workers.

Some parents who did send their kids to school on Tuesday said they were watching the COVID-19 numbers carefully.

"I'm an educator, I'm a mother, and I understand the impact of what that looks like when schools are closed for families," said Meghan Storey. "That being said, if it moves forward, if cases continue to grow, I probably would like to see a switch to remote learning."

Jonathan Loschmann said he's concerned about the spike in new COVID-19 cases, but has faith in the system.

"It worries [me], but [I] trust that the school is doing what they can within reason ... to limit spread," he said.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his government is working on a plan for teachers, but made no firm commitment about when they'd be vaccinated.