Ontario elementary school students should plan for a full return to class this fall while high school students in the larger school boards will attend class on alternate days, under the provincial government’s back-to-school plan.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce unveiled the plan just six weeks before students are scheduled to return to school and a week before the province’s 72 school boards were initially asked to outline their plans for the academic year.
Face coverings will be mandatory for students in Grade 4 to 12 while on school property while they will be “encouraged” for Kindergarten to Grade 3 students.
Masks and other appropriate PPE will be provided to teachers and other school staff, according to Lecce.
For students in kindergarten to Grade 8, they will be expected to attend class five days a week but they will be placed in one cohort for the entire day, which will include recess and lunch.
For high school students, there will be class cohorts of approximately 15 students attending class on alternate days or alternate schedules. This plan would apply to 24 designated school boards across the province including Toronto District, Toronto Catholic, Peel, York, Durham, Halton, Hamilton-Wentworth, and Ottawa-Carlton.
For the 48 non-designated school boards, who typically have smaller enrolments, students would be expected to attend class on a daily basis with enhanced health and safety protocols.
All school boards will adopt timetabling methods that emphasize cohorting of students as much as possible, to limit the number of direct and indirect student-to-student contacts.
“We’re going to get our kids back to schools in a way that looks and feels much like it used to,” Premier Doug Ford said, adding that the plan had been green-lit by top public health officials.
The province had previously asked school boards to prepare for three scenarios come September: regular in-class instruction with physical-distancing measures in place, full-time remote learning, and a hybrid model blending both approaches.
Lecce initially expressed a preference for the hybrid model, which would see no more than 15 students in class attending on alternating days or weeks. More recently, he expressed a preference for full-time, in-class learning.
Parents will have the option of remote learning for their kids and school boards will be asked to implement adapted and remote learning models should they be required.
Students with a high level of special education needs who are unable to study remotely will be permitted to attend class on a daily basis.
The government says a new school monitoring system will be put in place and any student or staff member who shows symptoms of COVID-19 will be immediately separated from others. Those individuals will not be allowed to return to school until they test negative and are symptom free for 24 hours and cleared by public health officials to return.
Schools will also be asked to keep a record of classes, transported students, and visitors, so that proper contact tracing can be done by public health officials.
“We will also be supporting public health efforts by continuing to promote our screening protocols so that students and staff do not show up to school if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, even if they are mild,” said Lecce.
Lecce added that teachers who are immunocompromised or feel unsafe returning to class for other reasons can focus their efforts on teaching students who are opting for remote learning.
The government is also making available $309 million in new funding, including $60 million for PPE, $80 million for extra staffing and $25 million for cleaning supplies. This is on top of the $25 million in funding previously announced for mental health and technology supports.
An updated report Wednesday from a group of doctors and education experts from across the province recommended a daily return-to-class plan with masks or face coverings for high school and middle school students, as well as smaller class sizes and staggered lunch breaks.
NDP Education critic Marit Stiles calls the government’s back-to-school plan a “low-budget scheme” which increases risk in order to save money on the backs of children.
Stiles says the plan sends kids into overcrowded classrooms while forcing high school students to do half their education at home, alone and with little to no help.
The NDP says a better solution would be to hire thousands of teachers, education workers and custodians so that every student could return to school in the fall but in smaller, safer classes.
“We should be sparing no expense to give children both safety, and the best education we can,” said Stiles. “Instead, Ford has put together a low-budget scheme to save money on the backs of children, and the price of that is a higher risk to their health and safety, and risk to their academic success.”
Stiles says it’s not too late for Ford to adjust his plan in order to provide more funding to get the necessary teachers and spaces lined up so students can be in small, safer classrooms in the fall.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca agreed, saying Ford was “shortchanging” schools.
“Parents across Ontario have been waiting anxiously for a plan to reopen schools safely – today they got one written on the back of a napkin,” he said.
In a joint statement, the province’s four major teachers’ unions said the Ford government was jeopardizing the safety of everyone with an underfunded return to school plan.
OSSTF president Harvey Bischof called the plan an insult to every student, parent and educator in the province.
“The Ford 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,” said Bischof. “It’s clear from today’s announcement that they have squandered that time.”
Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario president Sam Hammond said while the additional investment is a “step in the right direction” the plan falls far short of ensuring the safety of everyone in the public elementary system.
“Restaurants, grocery stores and gyms will have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools given the insufficient funding allocated in this plan,” said Hammond. “Two-metre physical distancing and mask wearing have been required for indoor activities across the province. COVID-19 does not distinguish between a grocery store and a classroom, between a coffee shop or school hallways.”
Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association president Liz Stuart said the plan fails to provide the necessary additional resources to support distance learning for those families who opt to keep their kids home as well as supporting those students in schools who have unique learning needs.
Together the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) represent 200,000 teachers and education workers across the province.
Watch: Parents, teachers react to back-to-school plan
Read the entire Ontario government back-to-school plan here: