Returning to school is often a little fraught — the rhythms of summer and holiday break transitioning back to the routines of learning, lunchtime and recess.
But this January, as re-entry was pushed back a week for most students in B.C., nerves and uncertainty seemed at an all-time high.
We’re heading into yet another pandemic year, and while the government has made some safety funding available to improve classroom conditions, many readers remain worried about ventilation, inadequate physical distancing in classes and cafeterias, and inadequate personal protective equipment.
The overriding message about school from the provincial health authority has been that in-class learning is key to students’ mental health, and that the best way to protect kids is to vaccinate all eligible members in a school’s community.
The increase in the spread of COVID due to the higher transmissibility of the Omicron variant, however, has led to more kids landing in the hospital and the ICU. And as some experts point out, the long-term effects of contracting COVID are still one big question mark.
Moreover, a public health policy that underscores that most youth will be OK is one that leaves kids with disabilities and chronic illnesses out in the cold.
Back to school, in short, has been a complex issue for students and parents. And it’s a labour issue, too — school staff deserve safe working environments, just like kids deserve safe learning environments.
So we opened the floor to students, teachers and parents, to share their experiences, thoughts and analyses on the ground. While we did get a few emails saying, in effect, send ‘em back and let COVID sort ‘em out (a feeling that aligns with about two in five respondents* to a recent Angus Reid poll), many readers shared thoughtful notes about how they’re weighing risks in their households, and what they’d like to see the province do differently. We’re sharing the thoughtful letters here.
These submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
'We carry heavy loads'
"I am an education assistant who has been working in two school districts and several secondary schools during the pandemic. Education assistants are being asked to carry a disproportionate risk. The kids we work with don’t follow rules all the time, and there are inadequate rules in place to protect us. To take a shower at a public pool, or serve our military, people are required to be double vaccinated — but not in schools because they are “structured environments.” I’ll try to remember that in the cafeteria, and when kids sneeze on me, and when I’m stuffed into a tiny classroom with 27 loud students, and when I have to get close to students who are only able to mumble. Contracts for EAs are typically between $18,000 and $26,000 per year, and part-time and on-call positions are less than that. I earn under $25,000 a year and can’t afford days off work. Education assistants carry heavy stress loads. We are sometimes bullied by administrators and looked down at by teachers, and now it feels like we are being sacrificed in the provincial government’s roulette game. B.C. should follow the wait-and-see approach of other provinces until the severity of this variant is better understood."
—“Paul,” education assistant
'Students will bring it home'
"I am a biology professor at UBC. I am over 50, a single parent of a 10-year-old child and have no family nearby. My daughter got her vaccine as soon as she could in December. I got my booster this past Thursday.
"The schools have safety measures in place, but they are not good enough for Omicron. In December, the week after being vaccinated, my daughter brought home a cold from playing with her friend outside with masks off. Kids eat lunch at their desks in their classroom and play outside with masks off. Also, so many of them have poorly fitting masks. Omicron is so infectious that students will bring it home.
"Sally Otto, one of the lead researchers of the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group, is in my department at UBC. When we have faculty meetings, she gives her outlook and I keep up with the modelling group’s reports. The outcomes for Omicron are good once people are boosted. I made the decision to keep my daughter home until my booster is effective based on data from the modelling groups’ last couple reports and my knowledge of the measures at school. Lastly, I have a good friend who is a nurse, and she has told me total horror stories about what it is like in the hospitals. We have to do every single thing we can do to reduce spread and reduce the number of people who need the hospital.
"I’ve thought so long and hard about this. I am teaching online and having my daughter at home for the first two weeks of term makes it even harder."
— Jennifer Klenz, parent, Vancouver
'I can't sit in a class for three hours'
"My school was given an extra five days of Christmas break. We returned to school on Jan. 10 with expectations that things were going to be different again, like last year. On the first day I was already noticing issues within the school system that didn’t suit me. I’m struggling with breathing wearing my mask all the way up, but I understand the point of wearing it properly and I’m trying to maintain school with the mask on. At lunch I got in trouble for taking my mask half off to take a drink. But the main issue I want to talk about is how our school switched back to three-hour-long classes again as a COVID measure after the holiday break. I don’t know where the school system gets these dumb ideas. What they’re not understanding is that everyone learns differently. I can’t sit in a class for three hours. And I think I speak for most when I say I can’t deal with two classes a day that are three hours each. I’m feeling stressed with the way things are going and concerned for my own well-being, because I don’t see myself staying in school and switching into online again if this continues. Before the holiday break, school was tolerable, easier to understand, and there was more freedom, which helped, especially if you’re antsy or have ADHD."
—Adam, high school student, Port Alberni
'The questions are endless'
"I own a preschool in Fernwood, Victoria. There are three teachers and 57 children in our school. Since starting back at preschool last week, one of our children contracted COVID and then one of our staff contracted COVID. Both are isolating, as are most of the children from our school — the children are all close contacts and need to isolate for 10 days. Because of this, we have had to close this week due to low class numbers. There is little guidance and instruction from authorities as to how to navigate isolation times and COVID exposures with Omicron in daycare and preschool settings. Many centres are using outdated policies from last year, which are no longer relevant with this new variant. There are so many unanswered questions. After I put our policies in place, I received 45 emails from other daycares asking me to share them. Clearly there is much confusion about how best to support our unvaccinated children. People are seeking guidance for isolation time frames, contact tracing and how to safely come back into daycare centres. The questions are endless, from both daycare/preschool providers and parents.
"Early Childhood Educators of BC has written an urgent letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry regarding the lack of consultation and sector prioritization for daycares and preschools."
— Catriona Brown, preschool owner, Victoria
'It's been pretty good'
"I have a family of eight. I think that schools are sort of overreacting over COVID. We have three-hour classes now, which I like, because you have a lot more time to do your work. It’s better than doing online classes, which I don’t do well with. My experience with COVID is that I’m not worried because I know so many people that have had it. I’ve known more than 20 people that have had COVID and only one had bad symptoms. I’ve had COVID and the flu pretty close together, and the flu was way worse. I wasn’t concerned about returning to school, it’s been pretty good."
— Lukas, high school student, Port Alberni
'The reduced class size made it easier'
"On Monday, after some soul-searching, I insisted that my daughter go to school and we would reassess on a daily basis. My rationale was that our school district was not offering an online option and I see this variant being of concern for at least another month or two and she can’t miss that much school.
"After school, my daughter seemed more relaxed. She told me the teacher had separated their desks, was more strict about mask wearing and more effort was being made to keep distance between the kids. My daughter ate her lunch outside alone, so she didn’t have to take her mask off in class to eat. It turns out approximately one-third of her class didn’t come immediately back to class. Whether that is due to illness or parents worried about COVID, I don’t know, but the reduced class size made it easier for the teacher to keep more space between the kids.
"My child wasn’t mature enough to attend online school regularly last year without lots of supervision, which is hard to provide when you are working full time at home. I know many parents who had to go to work, and their kids had no supervision. My daughter’s school performance suffered last year, as did our mental health and our relationship. Having said that, I think a few weeks of online learning until we can get through the worst of Omicron, or until additional necessary controls could have been put into place would have been better.
"Later this month I am scheduled to get my booster. My daughter is eligible to get her second vaccine in early February. It can’t come soon enough."
— Lesley, parent, Surrey
'Why aren't we given face shields?'
"We already have staff out with COVID. Students too. We have been advised that we might run short on custodial staff to do cleaning. If so, we are asked to clean the desks between uses. We are union! We would be taking someone else’s work from them.
"We were promised rapid tests, but no rapid tests are available. We have those wretched blue disposable masks to wear. They should be changed frequently through the day as a moist mask is a conduit for the virus. So are exposed mucosa, including the eyes. So why aren’t we given face shields, too? From the perspective of a severely immunocompromised individual, we should be provided with a higher level of protection, like N95 masks."
— “Natalie,” teacher, Lower Mainland high school
'Glad to be back together'
"I’m a middle school teacher and I’m happy to report having very good attendance this week. In general, everyone (including me!) is very glad to be back together in the classroom. I’m triple vaxed and had COVID last fall. Several of my students have had COVID as well. We are aware of the risks. However, there are significant risks to not going to school, as well — effects on student learning, and on their mental health, both for those who stay home and for those who show up."
— Marlene, middle school teacher, Fraser Valley
'The safety measures are not enough'
"I am a 15-year-old secondary school student. So far, my return to school has been far from what I had hoped for. Even though knowing COVID-19 cases were only going to go up over winter break, I still believed school was going to return as normal. It wasn’t until just a few days before we were due to return, after our extended break, that we were informed that our classes would now be three hours long. Needless to say, neither my friends nor I were thrilled. It’s hard enough to focus for one and a half hours, much less three hours. Overall, the school community feels mostly the same. Hallways are still overcrowded, students can’t be responsible and keep their masks up, classrooms are treated no differently and many students have already tested positive for COVID-19 after coming to school. I am concerned that our school district is not being proactive enough to prevent an outbreak at my school. In a perfect world, it’d be awesome if everyone could get vaccinated, stay home for two weeks and we could go back to our normal lives. I think the only realistic way to keep everyone safe would be to switch to online learning, but that itself has drawbacks and complications. The safety measures put in place are not enough for us students to safely come back to school. More needs to be done!"
— Jace, high school student, Port Alberni
'My younger son was nervous'
"On Sunday night, my eldest son laid out his new Victoria Royals jersey on the bed at 9 p.m. His Santa letter included two WHL jerseys, and with supply chain issues, we received a men’s XL Everett Silvertips jersey, and a Royals jersey that barely fit his little brother. But he was excited to wear his new outfit and break a three-week routine of video games, IXL (online learning) and shooting pucks at his brother’s head in the basement. We’d cancelled a long-awaited trip to Jasper due to the weather, so he was concerned he wouldn’t know what to say to classmates to make his holidays sound exciting. He needn’t have worried. Four of 25 kids were absent and there was a substitute entertaining the class with jailbreak riddles. My younger son, who also started at this school in September, was nervous. Two boys had put a “bounty” on his head during lunchtime before the break, and we were hoping the holidays would reset the Squid Games mentality. He came home with breaking news: seven of 23 kids in his class were at home, and his teacher would be familiarizing them with Teams in the event of online learning. Both kids have been asked to stay home if they have any signs of illness. We’re fine with online, as we’ve had one full day to catch up on three weeks of work."
— Angele Parker, parent, Vancouver
'Exposure notices have not been transparent'
"We are heading into the third year of this pandemic and there has been no significant progress in making a back-up online learning plan for emergency situations. Why? If it were available to some families who are willing and able to provide a learning environment from home without losing their child’s place at their school, it would reduce the amount of crowding in the schools and allow for adequate distancing and COVID prevention.
"If it’s not safe to gather or attend a gym or yoga class even with masks, social distancing and vaccines in place, how are schools safe? There are no vaccine mandates, weak mask rules and no distancing. Exposure notices have not been transparent or consistent throughout the pandemic and parents just have to hope that they find out through the parent networks so they can make informed decisions regarding our children."
— Kerri, parent, Okanagan
'Life has to return to normal for most people'
"COVID has stolen my younger child’s ability to form friendships because of disruptions in leisure programming and school, and people not entering the homes of others. It’s sad, and I do wonder what the long-term effects for his social and emotional development will be. Vulnerable people should stay home, everyone who is eligible should get vaccinated and life has to return to normal for most people.
"There have been no outbreaks so far in the 2021–2022 school year, but one complaint I have is that there has been very little communication about cases or exposures since the school year began in September. This has left parents to do our own sleuthing about whether staff or students have been infected at our school. If we were alerted of an outbreak, I would definitely keep my kids home."
— Tara Sundberg, parent, Vancouver
'A hell of a year'
"This has been a hell of a year. My family lost a few members, not due to COVID but other diseases. I’ve had to travel a few times to help my mother, who is an addict and lives in the U.S., after she had a heart attack last year. It was a difficult time, and more so with COVID and all the rules and fear that have come along with it. I am thankful for Bonnie Henry’s focus on keeping schools open during the pandemic. My kid got to socialize and learn with friends and have a semi-normal life in the midst of a pandemic. The parents and teachers that I talk to have balanced the risks and benefits and are comfortable with their kids in school. These families are incredibly overwhelmed when school is closed."
— “Olivia,” parent, East Van
'Disrespected, unsupported and misunderstood'
"I teach high school and had to take a stress leave last year from February to June. I am now, as of this Monday, taking a leave again. I am concerned about the safety of students and staff in our schools. I am also extremely concerned about the health and wellness of my daughters, specifically my daughter who is five-years-old and lives with a rare disease, numerous medical complexities and is immunocompromised.
"It is not 'anxiety' that I am feeling. I am feeling disrespected, unsupported and misunderstood because my professional life is not allowing me to uphold my values as a father. I do not feel that the Omicron variant is “mild,” and I also do not feel that school is currently “safe.” These are the opinions of a father with a child living with a rare disease. My daughter is thriving and has been for a while now. She was once said to be the “sickest” child in B.C. during her first few days of life at BC Children’s Hospital. That was a long time ago. In the five years since then, I have put her health as a priority in my life.
"I put children’s well-being at the forefront of my decision-making and commitments in life. The provincial policies and priorities have been leading me down a rocky road of having to choose a single lane at the end... either for the health of my daughter, or the commitment to the support of children in my classes. Unfortunately, this also means choosing to earn a living and be a part of a school community, or simply walking away or cowardly avoiding work, without pay, without solidarity and without pride.
"I would like to see a hybrid model, for the many students who require, or prefer, this, which would also allow educators like myself to work from home for the time being. For the building, N95 masks or equivalent should be provided to all; HEPA filters should be in each room; rapid antigen tests should be accessible; educators should be fast-tracked for boosters, and so on and so forth."
— “Larry,” teacher, Victoria
'The reopening was rushed'
"I do not have access to an N95 mask, rapid tests, a way to monitor air quality in my classroom and am still required to work with students who refuse to wear a mask or cannot keep a mask on their full face. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before I fall ill despite strictly adhering to protocols. I keep my two tiny exterior windows open as well as my classroom door and advise students to come to class prepared for the cold.
"I think the reopening was rushed and not in the best interest of children and staff. Students should be in school, but a few weeks’ pause, to ensure equitable access to the necessary tools to make them safe, should have been the priority. Proper masks need to be available for everyone, and the mask mandate needs to include alternate teaching settings for those who are medically exempt from wearing one, and accountability and consequences for those who refuse. Rapid tests need to be in the hands of school personnel and ready to distribute, not 'on the way.' On site temperature checks should be mandatory before building entry. Air quality monitors need to be installed in each classroom.
— Tasha, teacher, Vancouver Island
Thanks to everyone who shared their stories, perspectives and analyses. If you are a student, or work in a school, and would like to send a tip to our education reporter to dive deeper into how COVID protocols are playing out in your school, email us at email@example.com.
* Story updated on Jan. 17 at 9:54 a.m. to correct a previous number that incorrectly indicated the amount of Angus Reid poll respondents who wanted to see all COVID restrictions lifted.