Ontario school boards warn of potential last-minute class cancellations during COVID-19 surge

Several Ontario school boards are warning parents that classes could be cancelled with little notice when in-person learning resumes Monday, saying they're bracing for Omicron-related staffing shortages that have been plaguing other industries for weeks.

The highly contagious variant of COVID-19 led the province to shift schools to online learning after the winter holidays. As students return to physical classrooms next week, boards said many teachers and other education workers could be sent into self-isolation due to the virus.

"We will make every effort to keep classes and schools open, but if we cannot operate safely, a class or school may have to pivot to remote learning until we can arrange for appropriate coverage," the Ottawa-Carleon District School Board said in a letter to parents.

"If this happens, we will make every effort to advise parents the night before."

Northern Ontario's Rainbow District School Board, meanwhile, told parents it may have to cancel classes day-of if there aren't enough teachers.

The Toronto District School Board -- the province's largest -- said it has several contingencies in place to avoid closures, such as adding more supply teachers to the roster and redeploying "central staff" to help out. Shutting down classes and schools could be a last resort, it said.

"It may become necessary to use the Ministry-supported strategy of one day per week of remote learning where students would not attend school in-person. This would allow the total number of available occasional teachers to cover a fewer number of schools," a letter from the TDSB to parents reads.

The chair of the Lakehead District School Board in northern Ontario said that similar to snow days, her board will be sharing information on closures when schools or classes need to be shut. Ellen Chambers encouraged families to keep track of those updates.

"Check (our) website regularly to ensure that the class or the school is open, because we're very much concerned about being able to have enough staff," she said.

 Chambers noted that while the board is going to do its best to notify families as soon as possible of any closures, the symptoms of a teacher, for example, could change the day of a class and the situation would need to be revisited.

"It's a lot of things that are out of our hands, unfortunately," she said.

The province is working to reduce absenteeism by shortening the required isolation time for those with COVID-19 from 10 days to five for people who are vaccinated against COVID-19, so long as their symptoms have dissipated. It is also allowing retired teachers to work up to 95 days a year with no financial penalty -- up from 50.

Ann Pace, an executive with the Ontario Principals' Council, said the "primary concern" is whether the entire school system will have the staffing levels needed in order to function.

That includes having enough teachers, school bus drivers, education assistants, designated early childhood educators and caretakers, she said.

"With Omicron being as (transmissible) as it is and as unpredictable with the risk of exposure, staff absences and having that reliable workforce is probably the most unpredictable aspect of next week and following," said Pace, who is also a principal at a school in Thornhill, Ont.

Pace said school staff are doing the best they can to ensure a smooth transition back to in-person learning.

"We believe that with the right precautions and with all of the support that we can get the public and from the government, that we can continue on to offer a quality education," she said.

"But we want parents to recognize that the next couple of weeks in particular are not going to be anywhere near what we experienced in the fall. So please be patient with us and communicate with us because we're going to work this out together."

Brenda Agnew, a trustee for the Halton Catholic District School Board, echoed those remarks.

"Our staff (are) doing everything that they need to be doing," she said. "And they're doing things probably double time, to ensure that we're ready as best we can for Monday."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2021.