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As parents send kids back to school, COVID-19 concerns loom. Here’s what you need to know

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As students head back to school this week, the COVID-19 restrictions they navigated for the last two school years are largely measures of the past.

Masks are optional, physical distancing measures are non-existent, and isolation requirements have been dropped.

That raises questions for Windsor, Ont., mom Sumbal Khan.

“What are the measures they are taking to keep our kids safe?” she said. 

She has two sons — Nabeel is starting Grade 8 and Mikail is entering senior kindergarten at public school — but protecting them from COVID-19 is a continuous concern. For her youngest, it’ll be his first time learning in person.

“He is too social. So I’m not sure how will he keep his distance,” she said.

Sumbal Khan’s children, Mikail, left, and Nabeel are gearing up for back to school. It will be Mikail’s first time ever doing in-person learning. (Submitted by Sumbal Khan)

The province’s decision last week to drop COVID-19 isolation requirements, despite provincial wastewater data indicating a small uptick in the virus, has Khan frustrated. 

“That is so concerning,” she said. “If that was announced earlier, I would opt for virtual then.”

School officials assuring parents

Despite the concerns she shares with other families, the health and safety officer for the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) assures parents and guardians that schools are “safe.”

“We’re meeting all the requirements. In a number of areas, we actually exceed the requirements,” said Tim Lauzon.

GECDSB official on health measures

Tim Lauzon, the health and safety officer for the public school board, outlines some of the health measures that will be in place for this school year.

Many COVID-19 restrictions had already lifted as of March 2022, which means this will be a “more normal school year” with extracurricular and other activities returning, he said.

Here’s what to expect at both English public and Catholic boards in Windsor-Essex: 

  • Masking is voluntary.
  • Daily COVID-19 self-assessments are recommended but not mandatory.
  • Hand sanitizers will be available.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting practices will continue.
  • Air ventilation and filtration systems have all undergone internal reviews, with most ventilation projects completed at schools, although several will be in progress throughout the school year.
  • If someone feels sick, they are encouraged to stay home.

As for isolation requirements, a representative with the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board said the board expects further direction from the Ministry of Education on isolation. Once that’s received, the board will tell staff, students and families.

Waiting for more information

The public board is “required to follow the guidance and provision set forth by the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, local health unit and so on,” Lauzon said.

Khan said that as of late last week, she hadn’t heard anything from the public board about safety planning or what to expect this year.

CBC asked a board spokesperson when safety protocols would be communicated to parents, but he didn’t answer the question.

In an email, however, he said “parents will receive pertinent information in the same fashion as has been established in the school community — whether that is using Edsby, email, phone, etc.”

Back to school, an important experience

Zarin Nawar shares Khan’s concerns about the lifting of isolation requirements. Her 12-year-old brother, Abdullah Rahman, is heading into Grade 7 at Bellewood Public School. 

Nawar takes on a guardianship role with Rahman to help their parents. 

“It’s been a hard experience on so many people during this time. During inflation, parents can’t afford to really take days off. Teachers can’t afford to take days off. So there’s really no support when you get rid of this isolation period. Anyone can just really come, you know?” she said.

Zarin Nawar, left, and Sumbal Khan, right, are worried about Ontario’s lifting of the 5-day COVID-19 isolation requirement as students return to school. (CBC)

“It concerns me that it could lead to bigger outbreaks that may be unregulated and we might lose control on the number of people it may affect.”

Despite those concerns, Nawar and her family feel comfortable sending Rahman back to school in person. 

He was studying virtually before, but returned to in-person learning halfway through the last school year.

“These are kind of like once-in-a-life experiences,” she said.

“If he misses out on them now, he’s not going to experience them later. I just think that’s only something that in-person learning can offer.”

In-person or virtual schooling?

Rahman said he’s looking forward to going back, despite feeling “bummed” summer break is ending. 

“It’s a new school year and I get to see my friends more,” he said.

While many families are sending kids back to school in person, others are still opting for virtual study. 

There are 110 elementary school students and 140 high school students registered for online learning with the public board as of Sept. 1. That’s a dramatic decrease compared to August 2021, when about 2,000 GECDSB students opted out of in-person learning.

Meanwhile, at the Catholic board, 43 elementary school students and 19 secondary students had registered for online learning as of Aug. 24. 

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