What was a highly anticipated two-week winter break for all students across the province roughly pivoted to a five-week gap before in-person learning resumed on 19 January.

As students concluded 2021, the return date to school was set for 3 January. However, over a week and a half into the break, the Government of Ontario announced its postponement for both virtual and in-person students to 5 January. The extra two-day window was for school districts to prepare for additional public health measures; the COVID-19 screener for schools and daycares was required to be updated, and schools were to provide three-ply cloth masks to students and put a pause on high-contact indoor sports and some extracurricular activities.

Following the announcement, an email was sent to all families from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) on 30 December, notifying that the Ministry of Education will no longer be collecting COVID-19 case numbers from schools. Whereas in the past year, the school community received updates whenever there was an active case in the building, cases will now be tracked through student absences. Families will only be notified once a school hits a 30% absence rate above standard attendance—and only then, closures will be considered. Students and teachers directly in contact with the COVID-19 case will receive a notification.

When asked about her thoughts after finding out COVID cases will no longer be counted, Sarah Hira, a Grade 11 student attending in-person schooling, said, “Not reporting the active cases in schools allows the virus to stay hidden when it spreads. That is a risk to everyone, and not just students. No one really knows how safe our school is, and how safe the people going there are. As members of the school community, we deserve to know—it gives us a sense of security.”

As the number of Omicron cases and hospitalizations continued to rise throughout the break, students and teachers anxiously waited on news regarding the plan back to school. Tweets circulated through social media platforms of leaked decisions regarding postponed in-person learning, but the final statement was released by the provincial government on 3 January. All schools were to move to remote learning from 5 January to 17 January. As soon as the transition was announced, Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute administrators sent out a school-wide email reaching out to students who required devices to engage in virtual education; students who were in need of a Chromebook or internet access were asked to complete the Google Form as soon as possible.

In emails to families, the TDSB emphasized how it prioritizes students’ mental health as the unprecedented challenges continue to come with the pandemic. In addition to school-provided resources, they shared more support links on their website. “I appreciate how TDSB made an effort to recognize our mental health and well-being; however, I think the decision to go virtual should have been announced earlier. It wasn’t a complete surprise because it was foreseeable, but knowing that we were going virtual would have given us more peace of mind,” says Raneem Alturk, Grade 12 student.

On 5 January, students stepped foot into the new year of learning online, and continued virtual learning for around two weeks. The return to in-person learning for students in school boards across the province was then confirmed to be on 17 January. 

In the email following the announcement, the TDSB addressed a few updates concerning secondary evaluations and end-of-semester classes. As the move between in-person and virtual learning took place close to the end of the semester, they stated, “Final marks will not be negatively affected by the final evaluations (final performance tasks, interviews, etc.). Marks will reflect work done up until December 17, 2021.” Teachers would continue assigning work and giving feedback; however, the “work will only be taken into consideration for Semester 1 final marks if it improves the student’s mark.” Additionally, students were given the opportunity to complete the semester virtually. The TDSB stated, “We know that some families and students will choose not to return to in-person learning for a period of time for a variety of reasons.” Students who chose to remain virtual until 1 February, did not need to inform the school, as they would be expected to log in everyday and attend class virtually.

Grade 11 student Kainat Fatima said, “It made me feel secure in a sense because everything I’ve been working hard for over the semester won’t go down. But on the other hand, it stressed me out a bit more because we’ve never gotten to experience a proper finals season, and we’re graduating next year.” 

Amid the preparation for the return to school, on 16 January, Environment Canada issued a snowfall warning for the City of Toronto. Given the forecast, TDSB informed families that the snowfall might impact student and staff safety with respect to commute and school bus operations. As per the TDSB’s Severe Weather Procedure, the board assessed the weather situation and made the decision at 6 am to close in-person schooling and extend remote learning for one more day.

Recognizing how the last-minute change of plans was difficult for many families, as well as the continued efforts for cleanup following the major snowstorm, Director of Education Colleen Russell-Rawlins communicated that both live and virtual learning were to close for the next day, 18 January.

TDSB students finally made their return to school on 19 January. Regular safety protocols were in place; students were required to complete a self-screening before entering the school, follow social distancing measures, and always wear a mask. During the morning announcements, it was advised for students to spread out in the building during lunch. All sports and extracurricular activities were put on a pause; many transitioned back to virtual meetings. According to the Principal, Mr. Di Felice, approximately 300 students have decided to stay virtual, while 1 500 students have made their return to school. 

When asked how it felt to return to school, Grade 11 student Omar Memon said, “School did feel empty, which is understandable as many people would want to stay away from crowds at this time. But school has never, and I don’t think ever will, feel like a ghost town. The staff and teachers at MGCI have done a great deal to keep the environment as fun as possible, so huge props to them.”  

As in-person and virtual students conclude their first semester, spirits and hopes are high for the semester to come.