Online learning will continue in southern Ontario until at least Jan. 25, but students with special needs returned to class on Monday.

A group of educational assistants (EAs) in Kitchener started the day in the parking lot, refusing to enter the school due to COVID-19 concerns.

Six EAs spent the first half of the school protesting what they called an unsafe work environment, refusing to enter the school even though their students were already inside.

All elementary students were originally supposed to go back to school on Monday, but the Ministry of Education decided to delay that as COVID-19 cases continue to spike in the province.

Parents of children with special education needs had the choice to send them back on Monday.

Seven-year-old Tessa returned to her classroom on Monday. She has a rare developmental disorder and her mom, Alyssa Trites, said online learning wasn't working.

"We really did nothing, because she just sat there and she would wave at her friends and her teacher and that's all she did." Trites said Tessa was making huge strides before the pandemic and said school was a major reason behind that.

"I want her to be happy and I want her to learn," Trites said. "I didn't know if I would ever hear her speak and now she's learning to read."

"She loves the school. Every day that she was home, she asked for the bus."

John Sweeny Catholic Elementary School had nine children in class on Monday. A few EAs went inside to care for the children, but six others stayed outside.

"We don't agree that they are sending back the most vulnerable students who are most at-risk to this transmission," EA Emily Thorpe said. "We are concerned about the community spread that could be right in the building."

Union representatives were accompanied by Catholic school board representatives and the Ministry of Labour to complete a health and safety inspection, checking for pandemic protocols like sanitizer, personal protective equipment and the ability to maintain proper physical distance.

"We found this site to be very safe," said Laura Grint with CUPE Local 152. "We worked very closely with the board's health and safety department and ensuring that all protocols are followed, that all boxes are ticked. We found it to be a very safe school."

On Sunday, the province announced it would provide $7.5 million to help students with autism spectrum disorder and improve online learning.