Outdoor classrooms were just one of the changes brought on by the pandemic. Educators are calling for better supports for schools with variants of the virus hitting younger people harder. Photo courtesy TCDSB

COVID variants raise concern in classrooms

By 
  • May 7, 2021

The death of a Catholic school student in Brampton, Ont., has highlighted the demographic shift of those most affected by COVID-19.

Thirteen-year-old Emily Viegas’ April 22 death sent shockwaves through not only the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board but across the province and prompted the launch of an online fundraiser for her family that has raised over $139,000.

The board said in a statement “supports have been made available to students and staff.”

“Our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the family and all those impacted by the loss of our young student,” the statement continued, adding, “As a board and at the local school level, we continue to focus on respecting the privacy and dignity of the family and allowing them to grieve.”

Doctors across Canada are warning that they are seeing an increase in young Canadians being hospitalized with more severe complications from COVID-19 which they attribute to the rise of variants and has educators considering the potential impact this could have on the school system, which has been closed to in-person learning since April 12 with no timeline for when schools will reopen.

Though severe outcomes from COVID-19 infections remain exceedingly rare in children, the incoming president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), Barb Dobrowolski, is not taking for granted that scenario won’t change.

The potential impact of more transmittable variants on children and adolescents is a growing concern for Dobrowolski, who begins her two-year term as president July 1.

“I know that come September, we’re still going to be dealing with the pandemic,” said Dobrowolski. “There’s still going to be variants circulating so our priority is going to continue to be the safety of students, serving our families and our communities and making sure that our members are safe as well.”

The failure of online learning, Dobrowolski says, has left many students, parents and educators desperate to get back into the classroom, so ensuring they will be coming into a safe environment will take precedence. It is unclear whether children under 18 will be eligible for vaccination.

Dobrowolski said the past 14 months have shown “that in-person learning is best,” and hopes that there will be “supports to help students make up for that lost learning.”

Educators say the province needs to consider all the potential scenarios and take a proactive approach to preparations for the return to in-person school. Over a year into the pandemic, scrambling at the last minute is just not an option.

Patrick Daly, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA), says trustees have been in regular dialogue with Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and senior ministry officials in planning for the next school year and advocating for sufficient resources. Provincial funding through the Grant for Student Needs, which due to COVID-19 has increased the amount invested in each child, is expected to be announced soon, Daly says, and will be very important as boards prepare for all potential scenarios.

Daly is focused on what he says is the common goal of educators and the ministry — keeping students safe. Whether it’s OCSTA, the ministry, Catholic partners or school boards, the number one priority is the well-being of students and staff and he is confident they will continue to collectively work to that end.

“I know sometimes there can be differences of opinion as to how it’s done,” said Daly. “But I have never once doubted the shared commitment of all the partners to place priority on the health and safety of students and staff.”

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