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Snow hampers return to in-person classes in several Ontario school boards

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TORONTO — A winter storm delayed the return to in-person school across many Ontario school boards Monday, with some deciding to hold classes online in place of a snow day, to the disappointment of families and educators. 

The Toronto, York, Halton, Hamilton-Wentworth and Ottawa-Carleton district school boards were among those that cancelled the planned return to in-school learning after a two-week pandemic shutdown because heavy snow forced a halt to school bus services. 

Environment Canada warned 45 centimetres of snow could fall by Monday evening over the Ottawa area. The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area was expected to get between 40 and 60 centimetres.

The Toronto District School Board, along with several others affected by the storm, was still offering the option of remote learning — a decision criticized by some who were eager for a break from the exhausting online learning and teaching experience.

Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, wrote on Twitter that she was "disappointed" in the Toronto board's decision to run classes online. 

"Staff mental health must also be a priority," she wrote. "I remind ETFO members that you are working in a pandemic. Do whatever it takes to preserve your mental health, that means learning today if possible, will look very different."

Toronto parent Jennifer Sylvester said she was also disappointed in the board's decision to forego a snow day.

Her 15-year-old son was excited to return to school to see his friends in-person on Monday. Despite his frustrations with online learning, she said he decided to log on to class so he wouldn't fall behind. 

"If this was any other normal school year, prior to the to the pandemic, my son would be at home having this day of rest, because that's what snow days are," she said. 

She said it would have been helpful to give students one day off before resuming classes in-person, after the province delayed the start of in-class learning due a major rise in COVID-19 infections earlier this month.

The Toronto, York and Ottawa-Carleton boards offered the option of remote learning on Monday, but the Hamilton-Wentworth and Halton District boards did not.

The Durham District School Board said there would be no classes for elementary students on Monday due to the snow, but secondary students would be learning online.

Tannia Semenko, who lives in Whitby, Ont., said her daughter's junior kindergarten teacher provided schoolwork to do online, but she decided to let her five-year-old make snow angels and toboggan outside instead.

Her daughter is too young to do well with online learning, Semenko said, and her family is looking forward to schools resuming in-person. She said she's hopeful that schools can stay open to give her daughter some consistency, but if classes go remote again Semenko said she plans to teach her at home with workbooks and other resources. 

"I'm glad that they're going back, but if it happens again then she won't be doing online," she said. "I just don't find it effective for her." 

East of Toronto, the Kawartha Pine Ridge School Board initially said only school buses were cancelled, but later announced schools would also be closed because of the weather.

Premier Doug Ford told TV station CP24 that the delayed return to school would be temporary.

“It’s unfortunate the first day back this is happening, but we'll get through it like we get through everything else,” Ford said. “Most of the roads should be cleared up over the next day or two.”

The snowfall in southern Ontario added a major wrinkle to the province's school reopening plan. 

The province shifted to online learning after the winter break, so schools not shuttered by snow — including in Thunder Bay and Windsor —  reopened for the first time in nearly a month. 

A spokesman for the Greater Essex County District School Board, which covers schools in the Windsor area, said the first day back in class this year went well.

"For the most part, attendance was pretty good," Scott Scantlebury said by phone. "We were able to fill all our teaching staff positions today with either the regular staff or occasional staff where necessary, so it was a pretty good first day."

Since schools were closed, COVID-19 cases have overwhelmed Ontario's testing system and led to staff shortages across the workforce, prompting policy changes that will also affect the situation in schools. 

Gold-standard PCR tests are only available to students who develop symptoms of COVID-19 while at school. The Ministry of Education is instead sending two rapid antigen tests home with each student, to be used if they develop symptoms outside of the classroom. 

Parents may no longer be notified if someone in their child's class tests positive for the virus.

Instead, the province plans to post information about absence rates online starting next week, and parents will be notified if 30 per cent of a school's staff and students are absent for any reason. 

The province is also sending N95 masks to teachers and three-ply medical masks to students.

Ontario reported 578 patients in intensive care with COVID-19 on Monday and 3,887 patients hospitalized with the virus. 

That's up from 3,595 people in hospital with the virus the previous day, and down from 579 patients in ICU.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2022.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press