Back to school, but back to normal?

Educators ready themselves to head back to class — but what will the 2021-2022 year look like?

Masks will remain the norm this September.


He might be the educator, but Gareth Reid has learned a lot over the past 16 months.

The director of Turnbull School, Reid said of running a school during COVID-19 (when only about 10 percent of the students at Turnbull opted to go virtual last year): “There were times when we felt like we were on Apollo 13, using whatever we had on hand to make things safe.” They made more spaces for desks, created hand sanitizer and hand wipe stations throughout the school and designated staircases as either up or down. The school also invested in new air intakes to pull in more fresh air, as well as hospital-standard filters on all their furnaces. “We got great advice and input from Ottawa Public Health about safety procedures and protocols, which helped to reassure parents and staff,” says Reid, “and ended up making all these adaptations feel almost normal.”

This fall, Reid and his fellow educators will be ready to follow the guidelines that the Ontario Ministry of Education put in place for back to school in the fall. “The indications are that the Ministry will try to get things as back to normal as possible, while continuing to be safe and COVID-wise,” says Reid. “At Turnbull, we’ll continue to follow the COVID safety and hygiene guidelines to keep all of our students and staff safe and comfortable at school.”

Reid says he expects they will continue to follow many similar procedures as last year. “If things change, we will adapt and change,” he says. “We’ll follow whatever the latest requirements are from the Ontario Ministry of Education and Ottawa Public Health. Our students’ safety is our top priority.”

For now, the Conseil des écoles catholiques du centre-est (CECCE) will keep in place the safety protocols they’ve had in place for the last year. “As the situation evolves at the beginning of the school year, we’ll put new things in place as required,” says Ann-Michelle McNulty, mental health leader, CECCE Learning Support Services. “Once we get advice from the Ontario Ministry of Education and the various public health units for the large area we serve, we’ll have everything ready to go,” says McNulty. “And we’ll be ready to explain to parents and students how and why to follow any new guidelines and make changes that come along quickly.”

“Parents need to know right now what kind of arrangements will be in place for back to school,” says Jennifer Wallner, associate professor, School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa, and Jean Luc Pepin Research Chair in Canadian Politics. She is an expert in education policy and a parent. And like many other parents, she is appalled by the lack of clear guidelines from the Ontario Ministry of Education. “And not just safety protocols, but will there be counsellors available for students with anxiety issues about coming back to school? Because that is going to happen.” Wallner says there has been no forward thinking. “There should be supplemental programs in place for students who want to be ready for the school year,” says Wallner. “I don’t see that happening. And when students are back in the classroom, will teachers have time to assess each student to see how they are doing and what kind of learning loss is there? There must be a dedicated time for that. It would benefit both the student and the teacher.”  She says that the Ministry of Education should be looking at how other communities and countries have been adapting regarding health and safety and ventilation in schools. And although there was a move to outdoor classrooms in the past year, Wallner says there should be more. “Being trapped in a classroom is old-think,” she says, “and right now, not that safe. Get students outdoors along with sunscreen, shade and water. It’s stimulating for everyone.” She also believes that plans should be in place for physical activity and sports. “I get that there is a big push to re-open the economy,” says Wallner. “But that creates a risk for other things in the early fall.” As she points out, many countries are now coping with a surge of the DELTA variant of COVID-19. “It’s not the same for people without children,” she says. “Right now, children under 12 can’t be vaccinated, and yet, this variant is striking younger children. That really concerns me. This [pandemic] is not over yet.”   

The city is not going to get to herd immunity for the fall, warns epidemiologist Prof. Raywat Deonandan, associate professor, Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa.  “Unfortunately, that means that most outbreaks after September will be in children,” says Deonandan. “Vaccinations will be available for children in early 2022, so hopefully that will take care of the school winter season.” Deonandan says there will be checks in place in the fall and any children with symptoms will be sent home. And the online option for classes will still be available. “Schools are considering appropriate mitigation tools, which include small class sizes and ventilation improvements,” he says. “But to my knowledge, not very many schools are actually doing these things yet. Class sizes have to be kept small and ventilation has to be improved for things to be OK.” Deonandan says parents should look at their own community. If the community transmission is low, that’s a good thing. He says neighbourhoods where there has been a slow uptake in vaccinations there might be an issue. “There should be a focus on how to keep schools safe in those neighbourhoods, and if there is some risk, Ottawa Public Health might step in.”

Deonandan says the Delta variant is a concern. “These mRNA vaccines are doing a great job and should provide protection for at least a year. However, a booster would certainly provide better protection from the variants we are seeing.” Deonandan says for children heading back to the classroom in person, there is comfort in knowing that most of the adults and teachers they’ll encounter will be vaccinated.

Sean Sisk and Erin Fraser, parents to five-year-old twins TJ and Kenzie, state: “we have no idea what to expect.” Many other parents share their sentiment. And they’ve also been frustrated with the lack of leadership in what schools should and shouldn’t be doing. “Given what we saw over the past year, we just know we’re not going to know anything until the last minute,” says Fraser. “So then, how can you prepare your children for what to expect?” Fraser is also concerned about children that will have difficulty reintegrating into the classroom. “There is going to be a real mix of children who were in the classroom and those that did their classes virtually,” she says. “Both our girls stayed home and are now rather shy from the lack of social exposure, and the fact that we’ve been telling them for the last year not to get too close to anyone else. And I don’t think we’re alone.” Sisk says they were lucky that TJ and Kenzie attend a small school with only 160 students. “It’s a small school community,” says Sisk, “and we do help each other out. That’s a good thing.” Fraser hopes her two daughters will be able to keep up with all the regulations that she expects to see in place in the fall. “The older students will get it and follow the rules,” says Fraser. “I just hope that all the hygiene protocols continue for everybody.”