By Mike Baker
The Ontario government’s recent decision to postpone March Break for all students and teachers across the province has received a mixed response from families throughout Haliburton County.
Last Thursday [Feb. 11], Ontario’s education minister Stephen Lecce said he was making the “difficult decision” to delay March Break until the week of April 12.
“This decision was made on advice from public health officials, including the province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams. At this time, it is critical that we continue to prioritize the health and safety of students, staff and their families so we can ensure the safe return to in-person learning,” Lecce said. “Postponing March Break, not cancelling it, is an important way that schools can help to limit community transmission. We recognize that congregation is a key driver of the spread of COVID-19 – something we realized over the winter break, and we will not take that risk again with your child, with our staff and with Ontario families.”
Lecce reiterated that the key driver behind the decision was ensuring public safety at a time when the province’s COVID-19 caseload is at a months-long low. Health officials noted there were 1,076 new cases on Friday [Feb. 12], and 5,380 new cases across the whole of last week. This differs greatly from the situation we were in a little more than a month ago when, between Jan. 4 and 8 there were 17,432 new cases, with a daily high of 4,249 on Jan. 8.
Minden resident Krysta Neave feels the decision to postpone March Break is a mistake. She has two children currently participating in in-class learning – one in Grade 12 at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School and the other in Grade 8 at Archie Stouffer Elementary School.
She feels both students and staff deserve a break following a hectic schedule since school started up again, initially virtually and later in person, back in January.
“I personally think moving the March Break is not a good idea. These kids have had so much change in the last year, that more change could disrupt their lives more. Teachers also need this break,” Neave said. “My youngest has been in-class learning, and also did a couple of weeks of online learning right after Christmas, so he could use this break to give him a bit of a rest. He isn’t happy about it being taken away from him.”
Haliburton resident Sherri Barry feels the same way.
Her son has been attending class in-person at Stuart Baker Elementary School since September. While she admits he, as a Grade 1 student, likely won’t be impacted by the delay, Barry feels thousands of others will.
“I feel like the kids really do deserve a break from school. Even if we had to have the break in our own house [and not going out], it would still be a break,” Barry said. “The kids and teachers have been working so hard to follow the new rules and having to switch back and forth from in-class to online. I’m sure a lot of people will [be affected be this].”
One of the main concerns provincial officials have right now surrounds the new variants of the virus that are prevalent in parts of Ontario, Lecce said. He admitted the increased presence of these variants was a key factor in Thursday’s decision, as was a desire to avoid the kind of spikes we saw case-wise following the winter break.
“We want Canadians to stay put in their communities, and not take the risk given the obvious challenge of these new variants imposing difficulty within our communities and our health care system,” Lecce said. “We recognize that congregation is a key driver of the spread of COVID-19, something we realized over the winter break, and we will not take that risk again with your child, with our staff and with Ontario families.
Bethany Houghton, who lives in Haliburton, commended the decision, expressing her belief that the delay would actually benefit students.
“The weather should be better for outdoor activities, which is safer for spread than indoors. We will still get our break, just later than originally intended,” Houghton said. “Hopefully [the delay] will also provide time to get a few more vaccinations given to at-risk people.”
While Jennifer Jowell said she understands why the decision was made, having her child home on break a month later than expected is likely to cause a major problem for her.
“They’ve rescheduled March Break for when I’m scheduled to write my university exams in April. I’m going to have to balance writing my exams with a child at home who doesn’t understand that when I’m sitting for a three to six hour exam that needs my full attention, that means he really can’t disturb me for three to six hours,” Jowett said. “It wasn’t easy last year, and I’m not looking forward to doing it this year either.”
One of the other concerns noted was parents who had booked time off work in March to take care of their children likely now won’t have the ability to reschedule or book more time off in April. Lecce didn’t address that particular issue during Thursday’s press conference.
He did, however, state that the decision had been made following extensive consultation with all Ontario teachers’ unions, trustee associations and principal councils, noting their feedback was appreciated.
Immediately following the decision, Ontario’s four teachers’ associations were unanimous in voicing their opposition to the delay.
“These are unprecedented times, and this is a much-needed break for students, teachers, education workers, and families who have been under tremendous pressure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” a press release sent out by the unions reads. “The government’s decision to postpone March Break does not take into consideration the mental health and well-being of those involved.”
The unions rejected Lecce’s claims that this decision was being driven out of fear of COVID-19 cases escalating once again following another break, saying that any concerns related to travel and gatherings should be addressed via other means.
By postponing March Break, the unions say the provincial government is continuing a pattern of ignoring the views of frontline workers most affected by the decision.
“This decision to postpone, despite unanimous opposition from unions representing educators and other stakeholders in the sector, including all school board associations and the Ontario Principals’ Council, is another example of this government ignoring experts and making decisions that are reckless and baseless,” the release reads.
“Teachers and educators have gone to extraordinary lengths to teach and support students every day since the start of the school year. Their efforts should be applauded, not diminished.”
While much of the local concern surrounded students and teachers, Judy Hobbs Neimann pointed to another sector that would be severely impacted by this decision.
“I am concerned about our local ski hill. They have already been closed for most of the winter, and now March Break business has been taken away from them,” Hobbs Neimann said. “I doubt there will be skiing in mid-April.”
Sir Sam’s Ski/Ride has been closed since the onset of the second provincial lockdown on Dec. 26. Chris Bishop, owner of Sir Sam’s, estimates he’s lost around $500,000 in revenue since then.
The Eagle Lake business will reopen on Feb. 17, and will be extending their season into April to make up for some of the lost days.
“Even if we go into grey zone again, we will be able to keep our lifts operating, chalet access to washrooms and takeaway food service,” Bishop said. “As before the lockdown, all opening criteria will apply regarding mandatory online reservations, chalet and food access and following all COVID-19 safety protocols.”