Several of these buses passed Romana Siddiqui’s home as she threw her children out the door of the school and handed out food and snacks for the day.
As stressful as morning speed can be, many Canadian parents are grateful for it. Through a dangerous second wave of the pandemic, Canada has managed to keep most schools open, most of the time, even in the hardest-hit Covid-19 hotspots.
“I want to be honest, I’m still sometimes nervous about it,” Siddiqui said in an interview with CNN outside of his children’s school, “but the quality of their learning, it’s far better in class, you can not compare virtual versus in class. So learning didn’t really take place at home. “
Already last spring, and backed by medical experts, Canadian provinces and territories responsible for education were trying to hold on to the all-too-often-ignored axiom; schools must be the last to close, the first to reopen.
The result has been an uneven patchwork quilt with some jurisdictions offering virtual and personal opportunities, others introducing a hybrid model for older students.
“For next year, I just hope we’re back in person,” says Adam, describing a school experience that has been far from normal, whether in person or online.
Less than an hour’s drive from Mississauga, Mark Witter makes his rounds during recess to remind kids to “stay in your zones.”
But apart from the masks, even outside, the sights and sounds are remarkably comforting, children reveling in the winter sun and clearly happy to be with friends at school.
“I was very excited for them to come back. However, it was different. We worked to build a lot of understanding with the students and families and just explain what our new routines were, but also try to make sure things were as typical as they could possibly be, “said Witter, principal at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Elementary School in Ontario’s Halton region.
The protocols comply with guidelines established by the provinces, school boards, and local public health officials. Students at this Georgetown, Ontario, school are in cohorts for classes and benefits, there is a detailed Covid-19 screening procedure for educators, students and visitors and universal mask wearing both inside and outside the school.
When classrooms around the country were put to mass opening last September, even Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, admitted it was a difficult decision for his family.
“We look at what the school’s plans are. We look at class sizes. We look at how children feel about wearing masks,” Trudeau said when asked during a news conference last summer, adding: “Like so many parents, it’s something we’re very active in discussions about. “
Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, ultimately decided on personal learning for their 3 children attending public schools in the Ottawa area.
But the reality of keeping everyone in school and keeping the virus out was a challenge within a few weeks of the school reopening in September.
Witter says two classrooms were sent home in two weeks of virtual learning, and seven positive cases were identified. But the school remained open.
From British Columbia to Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s largest provincial doctors have said that schools have not been a significant source of the virus and that outbreaks in educational settings reflect the level of transmission in the wider community.
Witter also credits students for helping keep schools open as they learn and adapt to the “science” that is now part of their daily curriculum.
“They wear the mask, they follow the instructions of their teachers, they wash their hands. And it has really been a fun thing to see and just a heartwarming thing to see that the students themselves have committed to public health measures as well,” Witter says.
Almost universally, government and education leaders have praised teachers during this pandemic, many of whom have borne much of the burden of ensuring students are safe, happy, and still teachers.
Armed with a face shield and mask and a seemingly unwavering spirit, Andrea O’Donnell organizes and cleans up her kindergarten class in St. Louis. Francis of Assisi. She admits she herself was skeptical that the security protocols would work well enough to keep schools open.
“How should I do this? How should I keep the masks on all the little 4 and 5 year olds? How will they be able to distance physically?” she says, adding, “And then I thought, you know, we teach these kids, you know, I’m competent, skilled. Yes, we can do it. And yes, we have done it.”
O’Donnell says her classroom, her school and her school board are “living proof” that it can be done that the kids learn personally, and she adds that there are good reasons to try.
“Am I worried about getting Covid? Yes,” she says, “I’d much rather be in the classroom. You know, I was really happy when we were allowed to come back. Just to see their faces again, that just, it’s just so much more fun to be with them. “
Canadian unions representing educators across the country have been advocating for more PPE, smaller class sizes, more teachers and better ventilation for schools.
While the issues have been controversial, worst-case scenarios for dangerous Covid-19 outbreaks in schools have largely been avoided.
“It’s a mixed bag. I mean, there have certainly been occasional closures and widespread closures. But you know, we totally agree in the perspective that schools, it should be a high priority to keep schools open,” Harvey Bischof said , president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.
This collaborative approach to keeping schools open has been far from perfect, but compromise has been its hallmark through two deadly waves of the virus and lockdowns and closures.
“It’s been stressful, it’s been emotional at times. We’ve just had to face it and let go of a lot of expectations,” Siddiqui said.