Ottawa students return to in-person learning for first time this year

There was excitement and nerves as students in Ottawa headed back to the classroom for the first time in 2022.

After an extended Christmas break with virtual learning, plus a snow day Monday, students were relieved to return to school Tuesday morning.

Cameron Nowiski is a Grade 4 student at Mutchmor Public School is the Glebe. He says he is excited to be back in person.

“There was online school and then it was too snowy and today we are back!”

His father Jamie Nowiski says in-person learning is where his son needs to be. “He is super excited to be back and so is everyone else!”

Despite cancelled school buses Tuesday, many decided to come to class anyway. Mother Melissa Langevin says, “You can’t control Mother Nature, she had other plans, but we are just happy to be here this morning.”

For the Wilkie twins Zebby and Joey, this means a return to normalcy. Zebby says, “It is really great, we are seeing our friends again.”

Joey is happy to be back to a routine. “It was kind of a catch up; we changed our seating a little bit, so we got in our positions and then talked to our friends.”

But many parents have anxiety and concerns over the rise in Omicron variant and the lack of contact tracing.

Max Bennie says, “It is concerning that we aren’t doing (contact tracing). It feels like we are just not going to look for the numbers instead of making our plans based on the numbers we are going to not look at them and assume everything is okay.”

The Ontario government said it would be shifting to an absence-based reporting system for schools and would no longer be tracking COVID-19 infections. The data will be publicly available and if 30 per cent of a school’s students and staff are absent, the board will notify Ottawa Public Health. The province is also distributing two rapid antigen tests to each student and a supply of three-ply masks for students and N95 masks for teachers. Distribution among students and staff is expected to happen this week.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, says Ottawa Public Health will also pre-emptively monitor the data.

"I can assure you that Ottawa Public Health will be monitoring this data source, we’ll be looking for anything that is signalling something, rapid change, something beyond what we would think is normal," Dr. Etches said.

The Ottawa Catholic School Board says, however, that it will continue to advise families if they are made aware of positive COVID-19 cases in students. Parents may voluntarily tell the school if their child tests positive on a rapid antigen or PCR test.

"It is important to note that Principals will not be involved in contact tracing, and they will maintain confidentiality at all times. As a reminder, Ottawa Public Health has advised us that most school contacts are not considered high-risk and only need to self-isolate if they show symptoms," the OCSB said.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board will be following the province's guidelines on absences, a spokesperson said.

"The OCDSB has been in discussion with Ottawa Public Health about strategies to implement the Ministry-directed absence-based reporting. At this time, we are proceeding with those plans and would like to ensure these reporting requirements are working effectively, prior to considering any additional reporting strategies."

Ottawa's French-language public and catholic boards also say they will be following the province's guidelines on reporting absences.

Father Kevin Dykstra says he would consider online learning if it was an option for his daughter Zarah. He says, “If we had been given a choice for temporarily type of thing I would have considered because again, we reached the peak yet.”

Mother Melanie Love says she has confidence in the school to keep students safe. “Everyone is doing the best they can, with safety precautions I am excited to have them back.”

But for those back in the classroom for the first time since 2022, excitement over friendships kept apart for news.

Grade 3 student Stella Blew says, “I am just excited because we haven’t gone to school, and I really like in person to play with my friends and see everybody.”  

School boards say they will make every effort to keep schools open, but classes may have to move to remote learning if there are staffing shortages.

Parents will be advised the night before, and they are encouraged to have contingency plans in place and monitor their emails for updates.

Dr. Etches, meanwhile, encourages everyone to screen for illness every day, stay home when sick, and get vaccinated.