Local school boards gearing up for full-time return now that provincial plan released

Premier Doug Ford at yesterday's announcement of the plan for reopening schools.

EASTERN ONTARIO — Local school boards and parents are gearing up to see their schools physically reopen for the first time in months as elementary students return to classrooms full time in September. The two biggest school boards in “low risk” rural Eastern Ontario also hope to welcome high schoolers back full-time as those boards may not be subject to the part-time hybrid model otherwise imposed at most Ontario secondary schools where students must alternate between in-person attendance and online.

Ontario classrooms will also feature the signature accessory of these COVID-19 times — as students from Grade 4 to 12 and all school staff will be required to wear masks.

Premier Ford and key members of his cabinet released the plan to send kids back to school yesterday, July 30.

Since June, school boards have been planning around three models of instruction for the 2020-2021 school year: conventional delivery, remote online instruction, and a hybrid model described as adapted instruction. “As the public health situation unfolds through the course of the school year, boards will continue to rely on these three models to respond nimbly and pragmatically to local public health dynamics,” the province noted in a press release.

If uncomfortable with sending their children back to school this fall, parents have the option of enrolling them back into remotely delivered online education exclusively, according to the government. But many families have had their fill of the remote home-schooling foisted upon them when the province, responding to the pandemic, closed schools in March.

“It’s been hard on families to balance work and child care, while kids have been separated from friends and other kids their own age. We want to get our kids back to school, but it has to be done safely,” said Premier Doug Ford yesterday. “That’s why we’ve worked with our public health experts, Ontario Health and the medical experts at SickKids to develop a plan that ensures students can return to the classroom five days a week in a way that protects the health and safety of our children, teachers, and school staff.”

School boards weigh in

Secondary schools at lower risk may reopen with a normal daily schedule, five days a week, and both the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) and Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO) are signalling their aim to provide that level of service.

“Secondary will implement a quad-mestering model whereby students will attend school five days per week to participate in two courses at a time for nine-week periods or ‘quad-mesters,'” says the CDSBEO in a press release outlining a few details about that board’s new draft “re-entry plan” for September.

The UCDSB was a little less definitive in a statement on the board’s website yesterday — but made clear it wants to see high schoolers back full time. “It is our hope that our secondary students back in class five days a week, but first we need to ensure we can adopt a daily timetable that limits interaction between multiple groups of students while at school. More information will be provided once we have further clarity and assurance on this.”

Unions displeased with ‘half-baked’ scheme

The province’s return-to-school plan was developed with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of the Solicitor General and the Ministry of Health, and it’s not without controversy. Teachers’ unions weren’t consulted, and they’re not happy about it.

The Ford government is “jeopardizing the safety of students, educators and all Ontarians by severely underfunding a safe return to school this September,” allege Ontario’s four major education unions representing 200,000 elementary and secondary teachers and education workers.

The July 30 provincial announcement, below.

“This plan is an insult to every student, every parent and every educator in the province of Ontario,” said OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof. “The … government has had four months to come up with a serious strategy — four months to consult, to plan, and to allocate appropriate resources to ensure a safe return to school in September. It’s clear from today’s announcement that they have squandered that time. In the midst of a global pandemic, Ontario deserves more than yet another half-baked scheme from Doug Ford and [Education Minister] Stephen Lecce.”

$300-million investment

For its part, the government is highlighting a planned $300-million expenditure on public health protocols to ensure schools are safe for students and staff. Those dollars include $50-million to hire up to 500 school nurses through local health units, $60-million to procure medical and cloth masks for students and staff, $75-million to hire over 900 additional custodians (and to purchase extra cleaning supplies), and $40-million to clean school buses. The sum also comprises:

  • $30 million for teacher staffing to support supervision, keeping classes small and other safety related measures;
  • Over $23 million to provide testing capacity to help keep schools safe;
  • $10 million for health and safety training for occasional teachers, who have historically not been covered by professional development that is offered to permanent teachers;
  • $10 million to support special needs students in the classroom; and
  • $10 million to support student mental health.

Those investments are on top of $25 million the province has already allocated to mental health programs ($10 million) and technology ($15 million): The province says it will use the latter sum to buy over 35,000 student devices to “support their synchronous learning in-school and beyond.”

“This plan reflects the best medical and scientific advice with a single aim: to keep your child safe,” asserted Minister Lecce. “While this plan will continue to evolve to respond to the changing threat of COVID-19, we will remain constant and consistent in investing in the resources, staffing, and cleaning supports, and strict health and safety protocols to keep our communities and our classrooms safe.”

“As a society, we’ve made an important shift in the dialogue about our children and the adverse health impacts of school closures,” says Dr. Ronald Cohn, President and CEO of SickKids. “While we recognize that COVID-19 will be with us for some time, continuing to stay home from school has become untenable for many children, youth and families. Effective, evidence-based strategies can help promote the safety of students, teachers, school staff and families as they return to school.”

“Based on the current data, we are seeing that overall instances of COVID-19 are declining in Ontario. When considering the health of the whole child, and as long as this trend continues, we believe that with the appropriate measures and strategies in place to handle potential outbreaks and prevent spread, schools are expected to be a safe place for Ontario’s students and staff who attend in person,” says Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation to ensure the safety of students and staff and will be prepared to transition to alternative options should circumstances change.”

Local parents and public weigh in

Grandmother and former teacher Diane Crummy expressed concern about properly social distancing children in local classrooms. “Some schools are busting at the seams now and no extra room, so I don’t get how that will work. I’m hoping the boards in this area have a plan for those schools,” observed Crummy.

Tawny Bryski-Wilson said she was “not convinced” by the plan and would likely keep her kids home this fall. “But if it’s as serious as they make it seem, the plan is a joke,” she added. “My kids will be on a bus packed with students from every class that does a high school run prior to the elementary run every day … going to a school that has a daycare feeding at least two other schools .. .that “circle” is way bigger than anyone I know… and these are my babies.”

Ian Porteous remarked it was “about time” that kids return to school.

Tara Thom said her children — in Grade 3 and in Senior Kindergarten — will go to school in September but with a caveat. “If the kids aren’t doing well — anxiety, acting out with the new rules, etc — we will pull them and homeschool,” Thom said. “It’s good to have them back into a routine of school and socializing again — but not at the cost of their sanity, they don’t understand what’s going on.”

This article was updated to include comments from local members of the public.

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