TORONTO -- Students across Ontario returned to school virtually on Monday for their first week of lessons after the winter holiday.

As part of Ontario’s provincewide lockdown, which began on Dec. 26, all education workers were told to provide their instruction virtually between Jan. 4 and Jan. 8.

The government provided two start dates for in-person learning to resume:

  • Elementary school students across Ontario and high school students in northern Ontario will return on Jan. 11.
  • High school students in southern Ontario will return on Jan. 25.

A spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said that while Monday is expected to be a transition day, he hasn’t heard of any specific issues when it comes to remote learning.

“We know that for tens of thousands of our students they’ve already been doing this and high school students, for example, are learning remotely half the time anyway. But we do know for others this will be a new experience,” Ryan Bird told CTV News Toronto.

Parents and guardians have been able to opt-out of in-person learning in phases if they feel the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is too high. There is currently a survey available through the TDSB that parents can fill out indicating their preference of learning for their child—in person or remotely.

Filling out the survey does not guarantee that a student will be able to either return to the classroom or stay home, Bird said, but rather provides the school board with information in order to better allocate resources.

The deadline to fill out the survey is Monday at 4 p.m.

Any switches confirmed by the school board will go into effect on Feb. 16, one month after students are scheduled to return to the classroom.

“My understanding is that the minister of education has made clear that the return dates are firm, that they will be reopening in-person learning during that time,” Bird said. “I think the important thing for us is that we remind everyone that our health and safety precautions continue. We take this very seriously so whether it be mask wearing, physical distancing, enhanced cleaning, screening prior to coming to school, so all of that continues.”

On Saturday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce released an open letter to parents confirming that in-person learning will resume on the original dates outlined.

“We believe so strongly that schools are essential to the well-being, mental health and development of a child, and therefore, must be safeguarded at all costs to ensure they can remain open for safe in-class instruction,” the letter said.

“I want to reassure parents that according to the province’s leading doctors, our schools are safe, with eight out of 10 schools in this province having no cases of COVID-19 and based on board reporting, 99.64 per cent of students have not reported a case of COVID-19.”

Between mid-September and Dec. 21, the province reported 5,103 cases of COVID-19 in students and 1,094 cases among school staff. At least 1,095 additional cases of the novel coronavirus were logged in “individuals not identified,” which could include parents or family members of school-related cases.

Speaking with CP24 Monday morning, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said that he has received no new information about the government regarding online learning.

“This is the same stuff, the same items that the minister talked about late August and talked about on Dec. 21,” Sam Hammond said.

“They should have put more money and more resources into supports for remote learning, but instead what the government did, what the minister did, was simply the first day into the winter break said we’re going to go to virtual learning as of day one, no transition time, no additional supports.”

Hammond went on to say that he finds it difficult to understand how the government could send education staff back to the school in the middle of a lockdown and rising COVID-19 case counts.

"It is a very difficult situation but we firmly believe that we should be out until the end of this lockdown at least."

Harvey Bischof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said that while education workers provide remote learning to students, they have not been included in the list of essential workers who are allowed to use emergency child-care programs.

For those who do not qualify as a designated essential service worker, there will be no regular child-care programs for kindergarten and school-aged children operating in child-care centres across Ontario during the first week of school.

“As usual there was absolutely no consultation from the Minister of Education,” Bischof said. “We did reach out through the deputy minister to say that you know this this was going to provide and create enormous challenges and could result in educators having to take leaves of absence, unpaid leaves, potentially exacerbating the shortage of teachers that we have in some places in the province.”