Canada’s largest school board has proposed a new back-to-school plan that will reduce class sizes only in elementary schools located in Toronto neighbourhoods at the highest risk of COVID-19.
Toronto District School Board had initially proposed a plan to cut class sizes in all of its elementary schools, but that was rejected by the Ontario government last week because it also shortened the school day by 48 minutes.
TDSB chairman Alexander Brown said under the new plan, the board would lease additional space and hire more teachers to limit the number of students in the classroom. The money would come from the board’s reserve funds.
The latest plan has been presented to board trustees, who are expected to make a final decision on Thursday. The plan may still need the province’s approval.
Brown said the board and the Progressive Conservative government have different ideas of what the return to school should look like, with the board focusing on smaller class sizes and the province taking a hard line on maintaining daily in-class time.
“We have a small number of resources and we’re trying to do the best we can with it,” he said. “I’m still going to remain optimistic that we can do this well.”
The new TDSB plan, regardless of which option is selected, will mean students have a 300-minute school day, as requested by the government.
“We thought a little bit of flexibility on that at the beginning might be a way to make sure that people feel confident about having their children come back to the school environment,” Brown said of the board’s initial proposal.
“(Parents) want to feel as safe and secure about this. I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to provide that level of confidence,” he added.
Premier Doug Ford defended his government’s decision to reopen elementary schools with regular class sizes, saying a number of regional medical officers of health approve of his approach, listing them by name.
“These are some of the best doctors in the country,” Ford said Wednesday.
Last week the province gave boards permission to access $500 million in reserve funds to hire more teachers and lease space to encourage physical distancing.
The boards, however, say those funds are largely committed to other priority projects.
The premier said school boards should hire as many teachers as they can, within the parameters of their own reserves, if they want to reduce class sizes.
“If they want to dig into the reserves, by all means,” he said. “We’re really, really relying on the school boards to make that decision, but the money is there.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory noted that the last few weeks have been a confusing and “even painful” period for parents. He urged the TDSB, public health officials and the province to work together to clarify back-to-school plans “in really short order.”
Late Tuesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce told school boards that they would be allowed to stagger the start of school over the first two weeks of the year.
“If there are changes to the staggered reopening, we ask boards to clearly communicate this to their parent community,” Lecce said in the memo to boards.
Previously, the government had told boards that they could stagger the start of school over the first week of the year if they felt it would help improve safety.
Brown said the TDSB would also use the first two weeks of the academic year to stagger the start of school.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath said the government was cutting corners and putting the start of the school year in jeopardy.
“Ford isn’t supporting school boards as they wrestle with critical health and safety questions _ and the window to get children back to school on time and safely is closing rapidly,” she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 102 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the provincial total to 40,972.
That includes 2,792 deaths – down one from the previous day due to a duplicate entry that was removed during a data cleanup, according to the province.