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Most students expected to return to school at Ottawa, Toronto boards

Last Updated Aug 24, 2020 at 6:00 am EDT

A empty hallway is seen at McGee Secondary school in Vancouver,on Sept. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Parents at three of Ontario’s largest school boards will be keeping nearly a quarter of kids out of the classroom, but the boards warn the statistics are not final as they continue to tweak their back-to-school plans.

Boards in Ottawa, Toronto and Durham Region say parents have indicated that more than 70 per cent of students will return to in-class learning come September, but they note that parents are still able to change their minds as the boards – and the province – adjust their back-to-school plans.

“So much of the information has been coming in late, which I think has been frustrating for (parents) and frustrating for us as a board, because you’re having to basically design a whole new school system in a span of two, three, four weeks,” said Mark Fisher, a trustee with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

Ottawa-Carleton reports that 91 per cent of parents responded to their survey and said that 73 per cent of elementary students will return to class, while 27 per cent will learn from home. Meanwhile, 78.5 per cent of high schoolers will be back in class on an adapted model that will see them learn remotely half the time, while 21.5 per cent will stay at home full-time.

Fisher said the number of students opting to learn from home is higher than expected – the board was anticipating roughly 10 per cent – so staff members are still determining what that will mean for how classes are set up.

“We might see some schools where all students have chosen to go back, and we might see some schools where a greater number of students have chosen to learn remotely,” he said. “So we have to look at all those numbers and then see how things fall on a school-by-school basis. That will really determine how we organize for the fall.”

Fisher said Ottawa-Carleton’s numbers are in line with other school boards’ across the province. In the Durham District School Board, current numbers suggest roughly 19.5 per cent of students will learn from home.

In the Toronto District School Board, current numbers suggest 71 per cent of elementary students will return to school if class sizes are not reduced, compared to 78 per cent who would return if class sizes could be brought down to between 15 and 20 students.

The TDSB said 83 per cent of high school students will return to in-person lessons, also on the adapted model.

But the Toronto board plans to send out a second survey based on its new back-to-school plan, which trustees are expected to make a final decision on Thursday. The board’s previous proposal to cut all elementary school class sizes was rejected by the Ontario government last week because it also shortened the school day by 48 minutes.

TDSB Chair Alexander Brown said there’s been a lot of confusion and anxiety in his board stemming from a lack of clarity from the Ministry of Education.

“We’ve been following Toronto Public Health advice on this from the beginning … and we need guidance on it,” he said. “But we get conflicting messages from the provincial side. So, you know, that’s where confusion sets in.”

He said he worries that could undermine the province’s public education system in the long-term.

“Once you lose confidence in something like public education … it’s gone,” he said. “It’s so hard to build that back.”

Brown also said he knows some families are grouping together and hiring teachers to create a “pod” system to limit their risk of contracting COVID-19.

“You know who the teacher is, where the contacts are, and it’s a cohort,” he said. “So, we could see this moving us toward a private system.”

A spokesman for the TDSB said he didn’t have numbers on how many parents were opting for home schooling or to move their kids to the private system.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.