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A school bus driver tries to clear snow as a winter storm causes the closure of schools in Toronto on Jan. 17.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Millions more Canadian students will head back to school today as officials across four provinces work to keep classrooms safe from COVID-19 and the threat of Omicron-driven staff shortages.

Students in Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia are set to return to class after starting the new year online because of record-high case counts.

The provinces had said the switch to remote learning was intended to take pressure off the health-care system and give schools more time to improve safety measures.

Deploying rapid antigen tests and upgrading air quality in schools are among the steps governments say they’ve taken ahead of the return to class, with some of the work still under way.

Still, some parents and teachers’ unions are voicing concerns that those efforts won’t be enough to keep classrooms safe and ensure there’s enough staff available to keep schools operating.

Officials and school boards have told parents there are contingency plans in place, but to expect potential shifts back to online learning if the virus’s spread forces enough people into isolation.

Public weather alerts issued in Canada, by forecast region

As of Jan. 17

Legend

Snowfall

Blizzard

Winter storm

Other warning

Extreme cold

No warning issued

Que.

Ont.

Montreal

Ottawa

Toronto

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONMENT CANADA

Public weather alerts issued in Canada, by forecast region

As of Jan. 17

Legend

Snowfall

Blizzard

Other warning

Winter storm

Extreme cold

No warning issued

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

Alta.

Que.

B.C.

N.L.

Sask.

Man.

PEI

Ont.

N.B.

N.S.

Que.

Ont.

Montreal

Ottawa

Toronto

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONMENT CANADA

Public weather alerts issued in Canada, by forecast region

As of Jan. 17

Que.

Ont.

Montreal

Ottawa

Yukon

Toronto

NWT

Nunavut

Alta.

B.C.

Sask.

N.L.

Man.

Que.

PEI

Ont.

N.B.

N.S.

Legend

Snowfall

Blizzard

Winter storm

Other warning

Extreme cold

No warning issued

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONMENT CANADA

In Ontario, however, a winter storm is throwing a wrench in the school reopening plan, with many boards announcing schools will remain closed today due to heavy snow and bus cancellations. Some boards are offering online classes instead, while others are not.

Environment Canada has issued snowfall or blizzard warnings for a stretch of the province spanning from the Cornwall area to the east, the Algonquin region to the west, and the Niagara and London regions to the south.

As much as 50 centimetres of snow is expected in some areas, and the weather agency is warning residents to be cautious given the risk of reduced visibility on the road.

Public transit in the Toronto area is also affected by the weather, with the regional GO Transit network saying a number of its bus routes would be temporarily suspended or adjusted for safety.

Some Manitoba students walked out of class today to protest the return to school as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise.

Fifteen-year-old Amelie Tetrault, who is in Grade 10 at College Louis Riel in Winnipeg, says she didn’t feel safe in class despite efforts by students and teachers.

She and others are calling for enhanced safety measures in classrooms, better access to masks and an option to do online learning.

Manitoba continues to see a rising number of COVID-19 cases that are straining the health-care system.

Health officials are reporting 20 COVID-19-related deaths since Friday, and the number of people in hospital with the virus has reached a record 601.

The number of people in intensive care, including non-COVID-19 cases, has reached 107 – 35 above the province’s normal capacity before the pandemic.

Nova Scotia became the first province in Atlantic Canada today to reopen its schools to in-person learning.

Students in about 400 public schools across the province had been learning remotely since Jan. 10 because of the threat to public safety posed by the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said today in an interview that the government hasn’t done enough to ensure students and staff are protected from COVID-19, especially considering officials will not conduct contact tracing in schools.

Wozney says some of his members are being asked to report to work even if they’re symptomatic but haven’t tested positive for the disease.

He says the union’s main concern is that reopened schools could lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Wozney says schools are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks because children are the least vaccinated group in the province.

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