Niagara teachers offer mixed grades to plan to move back March break

student After studying remotely from home since before Christmas, Niagara students and those from 12 other school districts returned to their classrooms this past week. CATHIE COWARD / THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR

The province’s decision to push back March break until April is getting only middling grades from Niagara teachers’ union representatives.

“The Ford government has repeatedly made statements about the importance of mental health,” said Brian Barker, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Niagara chapter.

“This is one of those situations where the government must prioritize the mental health of students, educators and their families.”

The government, he said, is “choosing not to listen when so many students, teachers and families are struggling.”

He was responding to Thursday’s announcement by Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce that March break — which was to start March 15 — has been moved to the week starting April 12.

The move was made, he said, to limit the community spread of COVID-19 as Ontario struggles through a second wave.

Most of the province will begin an economic reopening next week, with Niagara remaining in Grey lockdown status.

Lecce called postponing — and not cancelling — March break “an important way that schools can help limit community transmission” of COVID-19 and its variants, which so far have not been detected in Niagara.

After studying remotely from home since before Christmas, Niagara students and those from 12 other school districts returned to their classrooms this past week.

Prior to Lecce’s announcement, there was debate across the province as to whether March break should be cancelled.

On Friday, Barker charged that “despite the limited available data regarding the role schools have played in contributing to the transmission of the virus, there is growing evidence that school openings have contributed to the rise of cases during the second wave of the pandemic.”

He insisted, “this isn’t a partisan issue. All education stakeholders, including the Ontario Principals Council and all school board associations, agree.”

Marie Balanowski, president of the Niagara unit of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Union, said she’s hearing mixed reaction to the March break plan.

“Lecce’s plan to push the break to the week of April 12 means that students would be off for the Easter holidays, back to school for four days, and then off the following week for the delayed break,” she said.

District School Board of Niagara acknowledged the importance of a break for staff and students, but said it supports the province’s decision.

“Everyone has put a lot of hard work in this school year and our students, families and staff certainly deserve a break,” said education director Warren Hoshizaki.

“But if public health and the province have determined that postponing the break until April is best, in the interest of health and safety, then we support that.”

Niagara Catholic District School Board education director Camillo Cipriano said “we understand that the government’s decision to postpone the March break until after Easter in April may be disappointing for some families.”

He called the traditional March break “a kind of marker post in the year, a date students and staff look to knowing that they can unplug and unwind.

“The physical and mental break is crucial for everyone this year.”

The board will adapt, he said, as has had to for so many other unexpected changes over the past year during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This year has been marked by so many exceptional changes to what has been our normal routine; March break moving to April is just one more change we will all have to adapt to as we work to flatten the COVID curve,” Cipriano said.

Sean Vanderklis is a Niagara-based reporter for the Niagara Falls Review. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him via email: [email protected]