TORONTO — Many Ontario school boards were scrambling to adjust their plans for reopening schools Monday as a winter storm blanketed much of the southern and eastern areas of the province with snow.

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

Environment Canada issued a winter storm warning for the National Capital Region, cautioning that 40 centimetres of snow could fall by Monday evening.

The national weather agency is forecasting 15 to 25 centimetres for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas.

The Toronto, York and Ottawa-Carleton boards were still offering the option of remote learning, however the Hamilton-Wentworth and Halton District boards were 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.

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.

Parents and caregivers across southern and eastern Ontario are advised to check for online postings from their local school boards regarding closures and the availability of remote learning.

The snowfall in southern Ontario has added a major wrinkle to the province’s already contentious school reopening plan.

The province shifted to online learning after the winter break, so schools not shuttered by snow will be reopening for the first time in nearly a month.

In that time, skyrocketing COVID-19 cases 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 no longer available to the general public, and are now being saved for those at higher risk of serious illness, so the province is only offering them 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 will no longer be notified if someone in their child’s class tests positive for the virus.

Instead, the province plans to post information about absenteeism online starting next week, and parents will be informed 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.

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario said educators have mixed feelings about the return to the classroom.

“I have heard from members across the province who are experiencing a range of emotions as they prepare to return to in-person learning or continue to support students who cannot be accommodated through remote learning,” ETFO President Karen Brown said in a written statement.

“Some members are enthusiastic and feel safe, others are cautiously optimistic, and some are anxious.”

Erika Lopes, a senior kindergarten and Grade 1 teacher with the Lambton-Kent District School Board, said while she misses seeing her students in person, the idea of returning to the classroom has her stressed.

“I don’t remember the last time I’ve actually slept through a night, just because I’m a very big stresser and worrier. So it’s all playing through my mind,” she said. “And when I’m lying there at nighttime, I’m thinking: Okay, how am I going to do this?”

Kindergarten students aren’t required to wear masks and keeping a physical distance while teaching is hard — particularly, she said, because her board’s plan to deal with staff absences is to merge classes.

“On one side, you’re telling us keep them all apart, don’t let them play together yet,” she said. “On the other side, they’re saying, ‘Yep, we have to put them together.'”

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

The Canadian Press

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