By Julie Gordon
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian children are trickling back into classrooms, but the return is off to a rocky start with dozens of students in one province already in isolation amid COVID-19 scares and teacher unions filing labor challenges.
Coronavirus cases have been reported in numerous schools in Quebec since classes resumed last week after the summer holiday, fanning fears across the country as most schools reopen for the first time since March.
Canada's chief medical officer warned last Friday that cases in schools would be "inevitable," but told parents the pandemic was "under manageable control" in the country.
"We have quite low levels of illness," Dr Theresa Tam told reporters, adding: "I think it is absolutely normal to feel stressed. You're talking about your kids."
Canada has reported 129,425 coronavirus cases and 9,132 deaths as of Sept. 1, but daily new cases have been trending higher in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba in recent weeks.
Adding to the anxiety are delays and last-minute changes to back-to-school plans, as well as poor information about the possible consequences of what students are signing up for.
Jackie Lee in Sarnia, Ontario, said her Grade 12 son opted for virtual learning to avoid getting infected, only to discover after registering that he will graduate from an online high school instead of the specialized school he had been attending.
"This is not what we signed up for," she said.
While the online learning option has proven popular in many parts of Ontario, hopes that that would lead to smaller class sizes have been dashed.
"What we're seeing is students from grade 2, 3 and 4 all being put into one class because of the number of students who have ... opted for online learning," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO).
The ETFO and three other teachers' unions filed a complaint to the labor board this week to try to force the province to standardize physical distancing measures, cohort sizes, ventilation and busing in the province.
In British Columbia, a lawsuit has been filed by two families to try to stop the province from reopening schools unless tougher safety measures, like mandatory masks and smaller class sizes, are imposed.
ALL THE STOPS
Canadian officials have recommended masks for all students aged 10 and up, but not all provinces are requiring masks in schools. Still, provincial leaders say their plans are built around the advice of Canada's top doctors and scientists.
"We're pulling out all the stops," Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters on Wednesday.
Last week, the federal government pledged C$2 billion ($1.5 billion) to help schools reopen safely. But school boards across the country have said there is not enough money to hire new teachers to significantly reduce class sizes.
Some parents are turning to "learning pods", where parents hire someone to supervise learning outside of school.
Mychele Kitcher went on Facebook to find a nearby family to host her two young daughters in Ottawa. With an immunocompromised mother who just had surgery, Kitcher said attending school was not an option.
"The kids go to school with a thousand people. There's no way there's not going to be COVID there," she said. "I can't chance my kids bringing that to her."
While some parents worry about the risk of spreading COVID-19, others fret about the impact pandemic-imposed isolation has had on their children.
Ottawa mom Sara Bisson says that after months at home, her son is desperate to start grade 4 and see his friends again.
"He's ready to put a hazmat suit on. He just wants to go back.”
($1 = 1.3065 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa, additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa, Allison Lampert in Montreal and Moira Warburton in Vancouver; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)