Educators returned to Ontario classrooms this week with little information about COVID-19 cases in schools and some early signs of related staff shortages taking shape in regions that weren't affected by heavy snow.
Classes resumed in-person in the province's north and southwest after a two-week remote learning period prompted by rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Many schools in the Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa areas were delayed or only partially open on Monday and Tuesday as municipalities cleaned up after the storm.
In the Sudbury, Ont., area, where classes resumed on Monday, a teachers' union representative said the biggest challenge so far has arisen from instructors being forced to isolate at home after completing a provincial screening tool, because either they or members of their households had symptoms.
Liana Holm with the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said staff have been called away from preparatory work to cover homeroom classes with absent teachers. The Rainbow District School Board has deployed occasional teachers, Holm said, but there weren't enough available to cover all the absences.
"I keep saying I hope I'm wrong and everything goes really well, but we're only into it in day two and the stress in the system is showing," Holm said in a Tuesday interview from Sudbury.
An emailed statement from the board said it was too soon to determine trends related to absences, but confirmed that it used the pool of occasional teachers to cover absences "not unlike any other week."
The highly-contagious Omicron strain has overwhelmed PCR testing resources in Ontario to a point where most teachers and students cannot access those tests due to policy changes. The province is no longer reporting information about COVID-19 cases in schools but said it will share information about rates of absence -- for any reason -- starting next week.
Teachers' unions have warned families to brace for disruptions from anticipated staff shortages. The province has said classes might be amalgamated or temporarily moved remotely for days at a time.
Holm said the uncertainty of a sudden move to online learning and staffing shortages is putting pressure on educators that might have been avoided with a delayed return to classes.
"Yes, it's stressful to be online, but it's also just as stressful for many people to pivot back and forth," she said. "It may have been a good idea to hold off. However, that's not where we are."
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said there's confusion and stress about new screening protocols, limited access to testing and scant information about COVID-19 cases in schools.
"People don't know what they're walking into and they're they're quite nervous about that," she said.
The province has pledged to provide high-quality N95 masks for education staff. Littlewood said there has been little direction about re-use of the masks and when more supply will be available.
She said there's also concern about inconsistent access to rapid tests that the province has said it will provide to education workers and students in case they develop symptoms.
Elementary students and teachers in some areas -- including in Sudbury and Windsor -- were sent home with two tests each already, with a government promise to provide more for high school students once supply allows.
Littlewood said some teachers across the province haven't gotten the tests, though, and noted that the distribution process was rushed with direction going out over the weekend.
In Windsor, Ont., which also saw students return to class on Monday, local OSSTF representative Erin Roy said the first days went well, without difficulty covering for absences. N95 masks and rapid tests made it into the hands of elementary students and teachers, she said.
But she said teachers were waiting to see if and when the situation changes now that people are back in class and mingling again while the province grapples with the Omicron variant.
"We're all kind of holding our breath," Roy said. "Every morning I'm getting up, checking my phone to see if the absence rate is exceeding what our capacity is. We're on day two, and it hasn't yet but I can't say that will continue tomorrow or Thursday."
Schools elsewhere in the province were starting to distribute rapid COVID-19 tests and ramp up on-site vaccination clinics on Tuesday.
The Lakehead District School Board in Thunder Bay, Ont., said 16,000 rapid tests were in schools on the first day of classes.
In southwestern Ontario, the St. Clair Catholic District School Board said it would be sending test kits home with students on Jan. 20, while the Toronto Catholic Board said they would be distributed starting next Monday.
Meanwhile, health units were also running vaccine clinics at schools to boost the vaccination rate for kids aged five to 11 and offer booster shots to education workers.
In Toronto, the city was planning more in-school immunization clinics in neighbourhoods with low uptake.
The health unit in North Bay was advertising a Thursday afternoon clinic for younger children and their families, and public health in Sudbury, Ont., was planning one for educators and students on the same day.
On Tuesday, the leader of the Opposition New Democrats said that the government's priority should be to avoid another school closure, but she raised concerns that not enough is being done to achieve that or make families confident that schools are safe.
"(Premier) Doug Ford has actually made things more difficult for families,," Andrea Horwath said, pointing to reduced testing capacity and the province's decision to stop reporting cases in schools.
"How do parents, how does anybody, make a decision about how to keep themselves safe, to keep your kids safe, to prevent this spread of, of the virus, when they're left completely in the dark?"
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in an emailed statement that students are returning to classrooms with stronger protections like rapid tests and improved masks and ventilation.
“I know students will benefit mentally, physically and academically to being back in school with their friends and educators,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2021.