Unknowns loom as educators left with questions about Ontario's school reopening plans

·3 min read

With the Ontario government set to announce when students in some of the province's most populated regions will head back to school, educators say they are scrambling to get ready and feel left in the dark by yet another last-minute announcement.

"Teachers need to plan," Halton District School Board chair Andréa Grebenc said on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Tuesday. "We want … the lessons that are happening in our schools to be engaging, and that takes planning."

"Boards are like big ships, they take quite a while to turn," echoed Norm Di Pasquale, Toronto Catholic District School Board trustee. "So we can't get last-minute notifications for things and expect to have that fired up and ready on time."

Provincial officials said Monday that they will announce on Wednesday when schools will reopen.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Twitter the province will "provide certainty parents deserve."

"We want all students in all regions back to class," Lecce said. Premier Doug Ford has previously said the province's goal is to get students back in class by Feb. 10.

Di Pasquale called that date "a befuddling time," as it's in the middle of a week. It's also right before the Family Day long weekend.

Many questions remain

Grebenc said teachers still have a lot of questions about things like the rollout time and availability of voluntary asymptomatic testing, and exactly what key indicators and metrics are being used to move health units between learning models.

School board chairs from across the province have been asking for the exact metrics that the province is using to make decisions while on weekly teleconference calls with Lecce, she said, but there hasn't been any answer.

"The minister always defers to the chief medical officer of health, and doesn't provide any sort of concrete answer," she said.

Lecce has said the province is expanding COVID-19 testing for students and that it will allow school boards to bring in student teachers to fill supply roles as more schools reopen amid the second wave of the pandemic.

Officials said the targeted testing will be available in all public health units where students have returned to class. They said they expect that Ontario can complete up to 25,000 laboratory-processed and 25,000 on-site, rapid antigen tests per week but offered no timeline on how long it could take to get to that level.

The testing will be voluntary for both students and staff, officials said.

Last minute announcements

The Ministry of Education previously carried out about 9,000 targeted tests in some schools in Toronto, Ottawa, Peel and York regions between Nov. 26 and Dec. 18.

Di Pasquale said details about the new testing plans have been "a little sparse," and are "not really a big number."

The province promised more widespread surveillance testing back in September, he said, noting that this move isn't really what was promised.

Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist, told CBC News that depending on where it's happening and how often, more testing is likely a good idea — but she'd like to see more information, too.

"I think testing randomly in certain schools gives you an idea of the amount of asymptomatic spread there is, but unless you're doing it sustained, you're not going to pick up a whole bunch of cases of COVID that occur in different schools," she said.

On the whole, Di Pasquale said he isn't satisfied with what the education ministry has done since September to prepare for the reopening of schools.

"I feel like there was a lot of time, and usually what's been happening with this ministry is the announcements are just kind of coming in last minute … and it's just not enough lead time."