When Jessica Nelson decided to send her son back to school in September, she did so in the hope that he would be able to make up for lost ground.

Her son, who just started Grade 8 in Ponoka, Alta., struggled with virtual learning when his school shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But not long after returning to in-person learning, he was sent home after complaining of a headache.

“He went to school and was kind of slow in the morning, so his teacher questioned him. He said he had a bit of a headache, but that was typical for him, and they immediately pulled him out of class and put him in a quarantine room,” Nelson told CTVNews.ca by phone.

“They phoned me, said he had to be picked up immediately and couldn’t return until we were 14 days away from the end of the symptom, or until we provided them with a negative COVID result.”

Nelson made an appointment for the earliest possible timeslot at her local COVID-19 testing centre. The next afternoon she received an email from the school stating that her son could return to class without his test results, noting that headaches don’t fall under the most concerning potential COVID-19 symptoms.

But Nelson’s son did not return to class.

Like many other parents across the country, Nelson fears that the rules surrounding symptoms that force students to stay home will keep her son out of class, delaying his learning even further.

For now, she’s made the decision to switch him to virtual learning.

“Starting this year, the reassurance was, yes, everybody’s a bit behind and everybody will work together to catch the kids up. But that’s just not going to be possible if they’re constantly going to be sent home or told they can’t attend,” she said.

Nelson describes the situation like “being stuck between a rock and a hard place,” noting that both she and her son’s father work full-time and are unable to support their child during school hours.

“I have a lot of trepidation about how [virtual learning] is going to go,” she said. “But I don’t see us returning to the in-classroom learning situation any time soon.”

Nelson isn’t the only parent with such concerns.

"During the first week of school, our son was sent home due to an upset stomach and due to the school board's policy this meant our daughter had to remain at home until after the symptoms subsided, as well," Ottawa-area resident Cory Taylor told CTVNews.ca by email.

"We had our son tested for the virus, which returned negative 5 days later, but also meant both children were home from school for the remainder of the week and only returned to the school the following Monday."

After hearing that the school also relaxed social distancing rules for kids during recess, Taylor says the family decided to pull both kids out of school.

"We could foresee the coming second wave of COVID-19 cases and decided it would be safer for our family to continue our kids' schooling from home. That morning, we didn't even let them get out of the car and instead began the preparations to continue their school year from our kitchen table," he wrote.

But not all children who are pulled from the classroom are able to access virtual learning right away. Thanks to staffing shortages, some schools are still working to hire staff for virtual classrooms despite the school year starting.

“We always wanted our kids to have the in-person learning experience because we feel that they learn and enjoy a lot when [they are] socially connected… we took a calculated risk in sending our kids to school,” Mississauga, Ont. father Kishorekumar Nandagopal told CTVNews.ca.

“Now, we are very concerned with the recent spike in COVID cases in Ontario, and specifically in the Mississauga region, and [we’re] really not sure what kind of decision we can take with respect to our kid’s education.”

Both of Nandagopal’s children are now home full-time, but only one is getting assistance online.

His youngest, who takes part in an individualized education program with a teaching assistant, had transitioned to virtual learning through his school—though Nandagopal is concerned he won’t get the support he needs through online classes.

His eldest son, who he describes as a good learner, is still waiting to be enrolled in virtual classes—a process the school says may take up to three weeks.

“It’s so tough to separate their workspaces to get them to concentrate on school,” he said.

“It’s chaos in our house.”

Despite the uncertainty of virtual learning, Nandagopal says he’s too concerned about the impending flu season to consider sending his kids back to the classroom.

But not all parents are rethinking their pandemic-era education plan.

Ben vanKlinken is dedicated to keeping his kids in the classroom after watching both his kids and their teachers struggle with the virtual learning model.

“There was a lack of accountability for their work online. A lack of sufficient work to complete in a week, usually one to two days of work, not five like a regular school week,” he told CTVNews.ca.

“In person learning, to us, is essential to our kid’s development. Not just in furthering their education, but also in developing the proper social aspects of their lives to be able to function as a regular member of society.”

vanKlinken, whose family lives near Sarnia, Ont., fears that rising case numbers elsewhere in the province will cause schools to shut down again.

“I believe, as of this morning, we have two active cases of COVID in a county of 120,000 people. It’s hard to look at the number for Ontario as a whole and for them to pull the plug when we only have two cases here.”

“I don’t want them to not be in school.”