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‘Everybody’s burnt out and tired’: Stories from the front lines of the Omicron wave

News

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been conclusively shown to be less severe than the Delta variant, but Omicron’s massively increased transmissibility has allowed it to sweep through the population at an incredible speed. In Alberta alone, the province’s chief medical officer of health estimated there are currently half a million active COVID-19 cases in the province, with only 10 percent of them officially confirmed by a PCR test. Since the end of December, hospitalizations have been gradually rising and ICU admissions have been growing, although slower than was originally feared.

With Omicron likely at its peak, we spoke to a handful of people on the front lines of the new wave crashing across Canada and asked them to tell us their story. Here’s what they told us.

‘Everybody’s burnt out and tired’

Katie Warrington, ICU nurse at the London Health Sciences Centre

I don’t think people realize what a COVID patient in the ICU looks like. I mean, these patients are very, very sick. We have the state of the art ventilators and even they aren’t enough to provide the proper ventilation that the sick patients need. I mean, we’re throwing everything we have at them, and people are still dying, and dying frequently.

I just think it’s sad that people don’t seem to really care unless it affects them and their families. Maybe your family got COVID and they were sick for a week and then they’re fine. But when it’s your loved one in the ICU, I think it’s a much different perspective.

Everybody’s burnt out and tired. And I do think at this point a large source of mental strain is the fact that most of our patients are unvaccinated. And, you know, you think that these admissions were preventable. Back, even in the last wave, when we were completely overrun, our unit was full of COVID, we had beds between the beds, so in a four bed area, we would have six patients all with COVID.

It was different then in the sense that, you know, that was before vaccines were widely available, they weren’t available to everybody yet. Whereas now, everybody’s had that chance. So to think that some people chose not to have it, and now they’re in the situation that they’re in, you know, critically ill and declining in front of our eyes, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s mentally taxing.

‘You see a lot of ‘for lease’ signs now’

Paras Baveja, owner of Bohca Bistro & Bar in Edmonton

I think the hardest part is definitely the longevity of the pandemic. Uncertainty would be another one because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. We cannot plan accordingly. And, you know, it doesn’t really matter how much we sit down in the meetings and plan the quarter ahead, because we cannot execute, because we don’t know if we’re going to go into a complete lockdown next week. You know, it’s just that uncertainty, which has affected us the most. We cannot plan anything.

We’re trying to cope. We’re trying to shift our focus and we hired a full kitchen staff. We changed our menu for the third time just because we are back into closing earlier right now due to new restrictions. We signed up on UberEATS and Skip The Dishes so we can shift our focus, again, towards food because we still have bills to pay. The rent doesn’t stop and the landlord knocks on the door every first-of-the-month.

You see a lot of “for lease” signs now. Like even our next door neighbor, they shut down. Their place is for sale. And people are worried, people are scared. But you know, there are people who don’t believe in COVID, you know, they say, ‘hey, we’re tired of it.’ Like, ‘we’re vaccinated now, so we don’t really care, we’ll go out.’ But I have a young family and a kid. We’re still scared, you know? The latest variant, Omicron, it’s spreading. And we’ve seen a few cases in the neighborhood.

‘I’m relieved to be virtual’

Colin MacLellan, teacher at Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute in Toronto

This afternoon in my Grade 10 drama class, my students were rehearsing scenes, so what I did was I just opened nine tabs and I had nine different Google Meets going at the exact same time. So I actually had nine groups of students talking at the exact same time. I know their voices, so I could kind of hear the rehearsal. To communicate with them, since I can’t turn my mic on, I had to actually go through the chat in nine different windows. And the crazy thing is that I actually got choked up after it. Because it was kind of like what it’s like in school for just a moment. This afternoon I had about 20 minutes of it, where I heard this cacophony of voices, and they were all talking at the same time and doing something good.

Well, I have to tell you, I taught for five hours today, and I keep my kids in the class the entire time. I sit at my desk sometimes after my lessons and I fall asleep. And I’m a marathon cyclist, like I do six to eight hours on a bike. So this is not a matter of endurance. It’s just so consuming. The technology is a huge challenge.

There is one end user, and it’s your kid, it’s my kids. And I happen to have, you know, 70 in desks and two at home. They deserve so much more. And I don’t mean throwing money at them. I just mean thoughtful and conscious decisions. I can tell you right now that I’m relieved to be virtual, despite the shift, because my kids, I’m telling you, I talk to them, they talk to me. They are not comfortable being in person.

‘The pandemic has become the new normal for our children’

Chris Murray, father of three in Ottawa

It is easy to underestimate the cumulative effect of the pandemic. We are not the same parents we were when this began, and the feeling of fatigue is very real.

The everyday reality of the pandemic has become the new normal for our children, whether that means virtual school, not seeing family, or missing out on playdates with friends. At the end of the day, no matter how hard we try, we cannot replace their peer groups or give them the same experiences they would be having at school with other kids. 

We can see this impact as we struggle to keep our kids motivated and engaged with learning and online activities. We understand the need to avoid further spread of the virus but the impact of that is very much being felt at home.

At the same time, we see the amount of effort that is being made by our biggest support system as parents: teachers and schools. It’s consistently disheartening to see the opening or closing of schools being framed as a political issue, when in truth for the last two years the only proactive efforts we’ve seen to make this experience somewhat normal for our kids have come from the schools in our communities.

‘I really just miss the actual personal interaction’

Richard Spiegel, Grade 9 and 10 teacher at Thistletown Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke

So far, it’s been it’s been okay for me going back to online schooling. I mean, it’s kind of mind-numbing. I’m kind of bored and I really just miss the actual personal interaction with other people, right? It’s me and my family and we’re the only ones that we see pretty much. It’s really the personal connection you miss because talking to the students online, it’s hard to do. You’ve got a class full of students, you don’t know who’s paying attention, who’s not, you don’t know what the students are doing.

I did talk to some of the students individually today. And I remember one student said that she’s having a really hard time with the online schooling.

Last year, when I switched to online schooling back in April, we started off the semester in person and then we went online, and a couple of students just sort of disappeared. They just sort of fell off a cliff. They were doing okay in person, and then they were just not online.

It’s more of a socio-economic thing. At least that’s what my experiences were last year. Some of the less well-off students they were the ones who seemed to suffer the most. And I can think of a few students who would have passed my class, or who were passing at the time that we were all sent home, and then they ended up not passing the class.

‘They’re falling behind’: Canada needs a plan for kids hurt by school closures, experts say

News

As the winter break came to an end last week, parents in almost every Canadian province found themselves scrambling to adjust to school closures, virtual learning, and extended holiday breaks.

In Ontario, a two-day extension of the winter break turned into two weeks of online learning for the province’s students. In Alberta, the winter break was extended one week and parents are still waiting to find out whether their kids will be going back to school next week or if they’ll be cracking open a laptop for online learning.

Only in Saskatchewan, despite pressure from the teachers’ union, is it business as usual for now.

Although school closures were fairly common around the world in the previous waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s zeal to keep kids at home is becoming an outlier.

In Europe, there has been a new effort to keep schools open despite soaring case numbers caused by the omicron variant of the virus. In New York City, the newly elected Mayor Eric Adams argued that closing schools was off the table because it was massively unfair to kids who live in poverty.

“The safest place for our children is in a school building. And we are going to keep our schools open and ensure that our children are safe and in a safe environment,” said Adams, at a press conference on Monday. “We’re not sending an unclear message of what is going to happen day to day. I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen day to day: we are staying open.”

On the same day, Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters that it took him “30 seconds to make a decision” to shutter schools, close gyms, and put a bevy of new restrictions on businesses in the province.

Just like the previous shifts to virtual learning, Canada’s poorest kids will be paying the heaviest price once again, said Jamil Jivani, Ontario’s advocate for community opportunities and host of the Jamil Jivani Show on the iHeartRadio talk network.

“It’s very frustrating to me, because the reality is that I was one of those kids who was considered at 16-years-old to be illiterate, and by the grace of God, and mentorship and community supports, I was able to turn things around,” said Jivani.

“But kids like me are exactly the ones who struggled in school. And without actually being in a place where you can access mentors, and people who can help you, I would have been left to the wilderness, just like many kids are being right now, where they’re falling behind, and no one’s paying close attention to them,” he said.

The research backs him up.

A study by the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table found that last year’s school closures led to significant learning loss among students. As well, the closures led to increased absenteeism, disrupted access to specialized education services, suppressed enrollment in kindergarten, and compromised the post-secondary hopes of some students.

The negative effects sprawled out in other parts of society, depressing labour force participation for parents, particularly mothers, and potentially costing the Canadian economy more than a trillion dollars over the lifetimes of students whose skills have been damaged by the closures.

School personnel are also the most likely people to report abuse or neglect among children and the closures led to a decrease in reporting.

Paul W. Bennett, an adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University, has pointed out that Canada is struggling even to reliably tally up the number of kids who were “lost” during online learning last year. There is a large cohort of children who have simply disengaged from the education system entirely.

Even when kids have sporadically returned to in-person learning, many of the key social activities in the school day, like lunch-time, recess, and assemblies, have been eliminated or reduced. Experts are worried about kids’ mental health and there are signs of strain, including a recent study that showed a 20 percent increase in fights at high schools in one Colorado school district.

Fixing the problem

Jivani argued that there’s little point in arguing about school closures now and that parents and advocates should shift their focus to repairing the damage done over the last two years.

“Whatever ideologies people ascribe to in terms of the role of government in addressing social issues, this seems inarguable to me that we can point to direct harm being created by public policy and therefore responsibility in public policy to address that harm,” said Jivani.

Jivani suggested a plan to tackle the problem. First, a widespread “needs assessment” would be conducted, which would measure the problem and then set a timeline for getting kids caught up. The government would also fund extra programs, running on evenings, weekends, and summer breaks, which would accelerate learning and ensure that the process of catching up didn’t interfere with the current lesson plans. Finally, Jivani also encourages educators to tone down their focus on “race, culture, and creed,” and instead remember that kids who need help can come from any background, live in any neighbourhood, and be part of any community.

A study on the impact on learning and achievement of vulnerable Canadian children by researchers Jess Whitley, Miriam H. Beauchamp, and Curtis Brown also offered a number of suggestions for catching kids.

The plan included extra programs for kids who have been negatively affected by interrupted schooling, including “small group offerings during the school day, individual virtual supports provided after school, summer camps with a combination of play, high-quality recreation, and academics.”

The researchers also offered a plan for students who had become disengaged from school during the pandemic, including “outreach and mentorship programs, land-based programs, transitional programs with therapeutic and educational elements, or community-based programs staffed with qualified educators.”

The learning loss is already showing up among younger children.

A study out of Alberta among students in Grade 1 to Grade 3 found that students with problems reading were already up to six months behind and the students were having trouble improving without in-person teaching.

George Georgiou, the University of Alberta professor who conducted the study, said the stakes are high at this age: research shows that three-quarters of the children who don’t catch up by Grade 3 will never shake that learning deficit.