Canada

A "bargain basement" scheme: Ontario's back-to-school plan under scrutiny

Ottawa Public Health says classes should be “as small as possible” to protect children from COVID-19 when schools reopen this September.

Small classes will help with physical distancing, said the statement. However, “Given the unique settings, designs and capacities of schools across the city, Ottawa Public Health cannot provide an exact number for class sizes.” 

The statement also does not specify what is appropriate physical distancing in schools, a question that is at the heart of increasing pressure on the provincial government from education unions, some parent groups and opposition parties at Queen’s Park. They say the government’s plan to return elementary students to regular-sized classes is unsafe.

Public health advice in Ontario is to maintain a two-metre distance from people not in your 10-person social bubble.

At the province’s schools, the plan calls for physical distancing between students and staff “as much as possible” through measures such as spacing desks apart, staggering recesses, controlling movement in hallways and banning assemblies. Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said schools should “aim” for one-metre distancing.

Most high schools will adopt a hybrid system of part-time classes limited to around 15 students, which will make physical distancing easier.

Elementary students can return to school full time to regular sized classrooms that range from 20 to 29 students.

Class sizes are just one factor in safely reopening schools for the province’s two million students.

Ottawa Public Health’s statement noted that keeping community spread of the virus low is key.

Lecce made the same point at a press conference Monday when he and Premier Doug Ford defended the government’s back-to-school plan as the best in the country.

Lecce has rejected demands to lower class sizes in elementary grades. He says the province has introduced a bundle of measures to keep kids safe, including mandatory masks in Grades 4 to 12, more cleaning, public health nurses and grouping students into cohorts to limit how much they mix with others and make testing and contact tracing easier if there is an outbreak.

“The province is leading in virtually every element,” said Lecce on Monday. “The comprehensive nature of our plan should build confidence … We are doing everything we can to de-risk it, we are doing everything we can to follow the evidence, the science, and emerging advice from public health agencies to put the layers of prevention, and multitudes of actions…”

The government has allocated $309 million this year for COVID-related expenses in schools, which is the highest amount per pupil in the country, said Lecce. The total includes $30 million for “teacher staffing to support supervision, keeping classes small and other safety related measures.”

Inch noted that a report from SickKids hospital on school reopenings called smaller classes a “priority strategy” to help in physical distancing.

Her son Chesel Law, 11,  who joined her, is an extrovert who needs the routine and community of attending school, she said.

“He has indicated to us that he’s scared to go back to school, and I get it. We’ve been telling him for months to distance and now he’s being told to go into a room, all day, with 28 other kids and he is naturally uncomfortable.”

“We, as a family, have a very tough decision to make,” said Inch, who also has a daughter heading to Grade 9.

Parents can opt for full-time online schooling at home for their children.

Horwath branded the government’s plan a “bargain basement” scheme, and said it’s not too late to change course. Schools reopen in Ottawa on Sept. 3.

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Ford said the $30 million will help keep class sizes low in areas of the province with higher rates of COVID-19.

Critics note that amount is only enough to hire about 400 educators for the 4,800 publicly funded schools in the province.

On Monday Ford repeated a comment he made last week that he would like smaller classes, too.

“Everyone wants smaller classrooms, including myself, I fully understand,” he said. “But there is always the requirement, I’m not going to be putting kids in strip malls or industrial buildings, that’s for sure…the other issue are the teachers…”

That’s an apparent reference to suggestions the government find spaces in community centres, churches, offices and half-empty university campuses to create more classrooms.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath held a press conference at an Ottawa school Monday with several parents to press her demands for smaller elementary classes and more investment in school reopenings.

Rachel Inch, a Grade 8 teacher at Broadview Public School, said she feared going back to school won’t be safe.

“I regularly have classes of 32, 35, even 39 students that are 13 and 14 years old. Many of them are adult size,” said Inch.

“That many bodies in a room all day makes social distancing next to impossible.”

Much of the anxiety among teachers, parents and students about returning to school would be alleviated if classes were smaller in kindergarten to Grade 8, said Inch. “This year, I do not want any of my students to get sick. I do not want my family to get sick. And I don’t want to get sick. All due to policies that ignore public health guidelines to inform their implementation.”

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