TORONTO — Parents said they were excited but nervous as they dropped their children off to school on Thursday - the first day of classes in Ontario's largest school boards - amid a fourth wave of the pandemic.
Other boards started in-person learning earlier in the week, but it was the beginning of the new school year for students in the Toronto, Peel, York and Durham boards.
Chris Robinson, whose daughter was starting Grade 3 at Islington Junior Middle School in Toronto, described a mixture of emotions after dropping his daughter off to school Thursday morning.
"It's great to see the kids back, but how long until we go virtual again?" he said. "But for now I'm going to try to be positive. My daughter was beaming this morning to be able to see her friend."
Long lineups and crowds of children mingled in the yards of several west-end Toronto schools.
Kathy Palmieri said it's a relief to both her and her 10-year-old son to be back.
"I'm worried, of course, because of the virus, but I think this will be great for both my boy and us, as parents," she said. "The kids need other kids for their own good and we need a bit of a break because online schooling was so stressful."
It will be the third school year affected by the pandemic, though this year the province's science experts are calling for schools to stay open in all but the most catastrophic circumstances. Ontario has had the longest interruption to in-person classes in Canada. The province repeatedly moved classes online to tackle surging infections.
Entrance to school buildings on Thursday was staggered for COVID-19 screening, creating long lines in the morning. The province recently removed runny nose and headache from the list of COVID-19 symptoms that require children to stay home from school and get tested for COVID-19.
Pandemic safety will be top of mind for parents and students as in-person learning resumes with far fewer restrictions on activities and relaxed rules for shared spaces like cafeterias.
The Ministry of Education has sent guidelines to schools in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, which include requirements that staff and students self-screen for COVID-19 each day and wear masks indoors.
Ontario's education minister said all 72 publicly funded school boards have achieved the goal of having a stand-alone HEPA filter installed in every learning space that isn't mechanically ventilated.
The province has given extracurriculars including sports the green light to go ahead this year, but some Ontario boards and public health units have opted to hold off for at least the first few weeks of school.
Toronto Public Health was the latest to issue that guidance this week, recommending boards pause extra-curriculars, field trips and mixed-cohort high-contact sports for September.
Families in the Toronto Catholic District School Board were informed that the pause will be in place as school routines are established.
The top doctor in neighbouring Peel Region, a hot spot for infections throughout much of the pandemic, said Thursday that the region wouldn't follow Toronto's lead on the issue just yet. Peel Public Health is advising people consider limiting themselves to one or two extracurriculars, but not pausing the activities altogether.
Dr. Lawrence Loh, medical officer of health for Peel, said public health is monitoring the situation but isn’t currently recommending an overall pause on school extracurriculars given the current pandemic situation.
"We do recognize that sports and other activities can support children's mental health,” Loh said during a virtual briefing hosted by the Ontario Medical Association.
"We also do recognize that there's an equity consideration as well because many children access these activities in the school setting, where they may not otherwise be able to access it."
Loh said that advice might change if data supports it.
Public health in York Region is allowing extracurriculars but is recommending schools don't hold indoor assemblies for the first month. That guidance will be re-assessed later based on daily COVID-19 case counts.
York Region is also advising that high-contact sports only be held outdoors, with masks worn if cohorts of students are mingling.
Opposition politicians criticized the Progressive Conservative government this week over back-to-school plans.
The New Democrats and Greens called again for smaller classes and rapid COVID-19 tests in schools, while the Liberals called on Premier Doug Ford's government to disclose a breakdown of how it spent federal funding intended for safe classrooms during the pandemic.
Children under 12 currently aren't eligible for COVID-19 vaccination in Canada. Sixty-five per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 had received both doses of a vaccine as of Thursday and 77 per cent had one shot.
Vaccination against the virus isn't currently mandatory for students or school staff in Ontario. The province is requiring unvaccinated staff to regularly get tested for COVID-19, but health-care groups and political opponents have called for the shots to be made mandatory.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2021.
- With files from Melissa Couto Zuber.
Liam Casey and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press