'It’s hard,' Ottawa students, teachers prepare to return to school on Monday

On Monday morning, Eide Laham will step back into the classroom for the first time in more than a month, but the return is weighing heavy on her. 

"Going back to school it’s hard because it’s germs everywhere," the Grade 4 student continued. "At lunch everyone’s taking their mask off and even when the teacher’s telling you to stop talking they don’t, so you’re kind of spreading COVID, and even if they don’t have it you’re spreading germs, but at home you don’t really need to worry about that.”  

Laham is one of thousands of Ottawa students heading back to the classroom on Monday, but the nine-year-old is concerned for more than her own safety. 

"If I get COVID and I come home, I can spread it to my family and that’s not really good," she said. 

It’s the same worry that’s keeping others - like Rylie Anderson - at home, continuing virtual learning, while cases and hospitalizations in the capital remain high.

“To bring COVID home, and just giving it accidentally to my parents because you know, they’re my parents and I love them," Anderson said.  

The Grade 5 student and her family are choosing to continue virtual learning for the next several weeks until the COVID situation in the capital improves.

"I feel happy because then after I finish my work I can play video games, but I’m actually sad too because then I can’t see my friends," Anderson said.  

In a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Friday, the Ottawa Carleton District School Board wrote its “greatest concerns” remain unaddressed and called on the province to reinstate contact tracing in school, provide N95 quality masks for students, and implement a “test-to-stay” program in schools.

"Families should not have to rely on uninformative absence reports or on community rumour to determine whether or not a child may have been exposed to COVID19 infection at school, or whether the risk of exposure to COVID-19 at a school exceeds their family risk tolerance in light of other family members who have unique vulnerabilities to the virus," OCDSB Chair Lynn Scott wrote. 

Ottawa’s top doctor says students should wear three-layer masks, like those provided to the board by the province, and continue to rely on the protective measures already in place. 

"This is going to be a transition period so we will need to understand this coming week how many children are returning to in-person learning, we’ll be watching all of these pieces of information as well as what is happening with COVID on the community level,” Dr. Vera Etches said. 

Under the new provincial guidance, schools will not report COVID cases in the same way, but instead will track student absenteeism. 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. 

Dr. Etches says OPH 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.  

Still, some teachers say they’re weary of the return to the classroom. 

"I’m really walking into the unknown but I have to stay as positive as possible to maintain the best interest of my students which is really my responsibility as a teacher," Lisa Levitan, an elementary school teacher in the public school board, said. 

"I did a little informal poll in my class, anonymously, and only three kids are feeling comfortable going back, out of 51, so I know that the kids in my class are feeling uncomfortable," Rachel Inch, another elementary school teacher added. 

According to some educators, the new guidance is inadequate and there are concerns it could lead to an increase in cases in schools. 

“It just seems inconceivable to me to think that COVID isn’t going to run rampant through the schools with the vaccination rates the way they are, you know, the safety measures just - washing our hands? It’s an airborne illness," Inch said.

Despite the concerns, teachers say they understand the importance of in-person but are unclear why schools were shifted online in the first place. 

"The arbitrary decision to close the schools on Jan. 5, when there was 2,000 hospitalizations, and now we’re going back on Monday when there’s upwards of 3,800 people in hospital," Inch said. 

"Remote teaching is exhausting, is exhausting, I don’t like it, but I don’t want to be sick and I don’t want to increase the load on the healthcare system, which I know is overburdened at the moment, I just feel like I have no choices," she continued.  

With just two days before in-person learning resumes, some students also wishing they had other options.

“[I would prefer] staying home, on the computer,” Laham said.