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680 NEWS Gets Answers: Interview with Education Minister Stephen Lecce

Last Updated Sep 3, 2020 at 1:46 pm EST

680’s Richard Southern spoke with Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, about how the province is preparing schools to welcome students back to class.


Richard Southern (00:00):
We are live with Education Minister Steven Lecce. He’s been good enough to join us and to answer some of your questions here live on 680 NEWS. I want to start, if you don’t mind with a story that’s just breaking… the Elementary Teacher’s Union says teachers have the right to refuse unsafe work minister. What happens if those teachers refuse to work?


Stephen Lecce (00:25):
Well, obviously there’s a mechanism through the ministry of labor, that ensures that vigorous oversight, and inspections are done. We want to make sure that our schools are safe for our students and our staff. At the end of the day, we also want to make sure that our schools are staffed with a compliment of people that are going to work and do their very best under very difficult circumstances.


Richard Southern (00:46):
What if they’re not though minister? What if there’s not enough teachers there?


Stephen Lecce (00:49):
Well, school boards obviously are working very hard to ensure that we have an adequate supply, including by training occasional teachers, supply teachers, and working with the Ontario college of teachers to make sure we’ve got that supply. It’s a real challenge, and what we really need to ensure is that everyone in the next week shows up, those a can. Of course, I appreciate some people have pre-existing conditions, but for the majority of folks in the private sector, the public sector, going into work with caution, with the sense of optimism and just being careful will be important.


Richard Southern (01:20):
I want to get to some of the questions we got and we got a lot of them. And of course, a lot of this has to do with the size of elementary school classes. I don’t think we’d have the controversy we’re having now minister, if it wasn’t for this. One question from a mother coming from 680news.com says, why is it acceptable to have 30 kids in a classroom when every other business has significantly lower caps? Like my local LCBO minister, how would you answer that?


Stephen Lecce (01:44):
Well, first off, when it comes to elementary schools and high schools, we put in place some unique differentiators that, you know, respectfully, obviously a private enterprise wouldn’t have. I mean, in the school setting, a staff member will interact and the kids won’t track with the same cohort of students. Be it in elementary or in high school, that cohort is protected. So staff members in schools are interfacing or interacting with the same group of people, to the extent humanly possible. Obviously in the private sector, the LCBO, a member there, a staff member could see hundreds of staff. It’s limitless numbers that could enter through.


Richard Southern (02:18):
How is that cohort protected. If I walk home with friends from another cohort, or if I take the bus, or if I go to lunch with a friends from another cohort, how is that protection?


Stephen Lecce (02:27):
No, that raises a really important point. I think for parents and for kids themselves about ensuring the integrity of those cohorts and our social bubbles, and making sure that we don’t lose sight of how important it is to do our part. And that means when we go home, when we go into the, you know, the community centers and the arenas, and we start to return to some sense of normalcy: an element of prudence. I mean, you heard from Dr. De Villa, Richard, I believe when she said that we have to be ready for a second wave and be ready for challenges on the horizon.


Richard Southern (02:55):
You have the ability to legislate these classes to be lower, to bring the funding forward. Why don’t you just do that and end this controversy?


Stephen Lecce (03:03):
Well, we have, I mean, to be fair, Ontario is investing north of $900 million in this area and we have literally put in more than any province we have given school boards the ability to ensure that there’s distancing and that’s what the medical community has asked for. They want us plus masking plus hand hygiene, and we’ve done that.


Richard Southern (03:20):
Okay. I want to get on some of these questions cause we have a limited time here. Another big question that we got via our Instagram page at 680 NEWS minister is about distancing. One mother writes, she’s been informed that her classes are going to have one metre distancing. Why is it my school board has announced that my students in class will only be required to sit one meter apart from each other. How is it that we are upholding higher standards in restaurants than in our schools? That’s the question minister, how would you answer that?


Stephen Lecce (03:53):
Well, I would just say within our schools, we have introduced layers of protection that are comprehensive. I mean, the chief medical officer of health, the most senior medical authority in Ontario has said that masking, in addition to a least one meter of distancing plus hand hygiene, the fact that we have public health nurses, which no private, no restaurant that I’m aware of has those embedded in those institutions. We have testing that can be provided onsite, that’s another unique advantage in our schools. We have more custodians being hired, 1300, we’ve just invested another hundred $70 million to hire more educators in the EAs to ensure that we can do that distancing. So what I’d say is in schools, we have put in place comprehensive layers of protection that differentiate Ontario, let alone from restaurants, but from any other province. And I think that’s important that that really gets out there that we have additional actions we’ve put in place that includes more hand hygienic stations throughout the schools, a screening process to enter, as well as the fact that we’re going to have public health assets embedded within our schools to respond to a challenge


Richard Southern (04:55):
Have sent me pictures of the desks, literally right next to each other. They are packed in there like sardines. Why is that minister? How do you feel when you see those pictures?


Stephen Lecce (05:05):
Well, I think the question fundamentally for those that would, uh, share those photos is, is that the final class number?


Richard Southern (05:12):
I think it is, I think it is respectively minister because they’re ready to go these teachers next week.


Stephen Lecce (05:17):
Well, it’s, it’s interesting Richard, on one hand, uh, I’m being asked why aren’t the schedules completed? Cause timetabling is happening in live time because parents are still providing their numbers to school boards. And then at the same time, you’re then saying to me to do the final numbers, both, can’t be true. They’re in fact being finalized by school boards as we speak, because just for parents, for context, when they see those images, you know, I can appreciate why that would give an element of concern, but what is the truth or what the reality will be next week is school boards right now are finalizing the numbers of kids that will be within the school. That will allow that by knowing the number, you know, 500 kids a school, but there’s going to be a complimentary amount of staff. That’s an unknown right now. So it’s a bit of shuffling our expectations. Those numbers will come down. Distancing will be maximized. School boards now have more funding than they could have conceived, especially with the additional federal funding. We’ve just announced $380 million that gives them more latitude to do more distancing. I was at a school with the premier two days ago, right in downtown Toronto. And in that school we saw them innovatively use outdoor space, library, space, cafeteria space, additional spaces to achieve that distancing that we know is important.


Richard Southern  (06:28):
We guarantee them that next week, no desks will be butted up together. Like those pictures. I’m saying, are you going to guarantee that minister?


Stephen Lecce (06:34):
Well, what we can guarantee is that every school board (who is the one who’s delivering education in the province), every school board has the resources to ensure distancing supported by those additional actions like masking, cleaning, testing, and public health nurses. That is what we expect for distancing within our schools. It’s why we’ve given the resources to every school board in every community, in this province to do that. And we know what’s at stake. We all have family and friends who teach and learn in our schools. We want to get this right. But our plan from an investment perspective leads the country. And that’s not just an important message. What it shows is a priority of public education and the health and safety of our kids.


Richard Southern (07:12):
We don’t have too much time. Just two more quick questions we’re getting from 680news.com from parents. One says thousands of kids have opted for online classes, withdrawing students from classes. Why don’t those smaller classes stand? We’re hearing minister about these small classes being folded into bigger classes. Why is that happening?


Stephen Lecce (07:31):
Well, school boards right now are dealing with the timetabling and they’re just trying to figure out that number of students and the number of staff in the school, and likewise, the amount of students online and then this and the need for online educators. The bottom line is over the coming days, school board should be able to give more clarity to parents on what the final student counts number is and how they’re going to ensure distancing in every school we’ve spoken to. And from the local health authorities who’ve been involved working with their school boards, the message has been clear: distancing must be achieved. In addition, there’s improvements to air ventilation, which is critical as well as you know, for air quality.


Richard Southern (08:06):
A lot of that hasn’t been done by the way that ventilation hasn’t. It’s not going to be ready for next week.


Stephen Lecce (08:11):
Well, well, let me just, uh, sort of, uh, clear the air on this. In the spring, well, before I announced the $50 million for air ventilation, we asked school boards to utilize the $1.4 billion the province of Ontario provides the school boards for maintenance funding to prioritize HVAC and air flow systems. And to be fair to the school boards, Richard, every single one of them has done that. They’ve triaged the oldest schools with investments in HEPA filters, air flow improvements. And they’re making sure the HVAC systems, which are usually longer term projects, are being done in real time. Then we added another $50 million. These dollars must flow by Thanksgiving and then the feds kicked in more money. And the point is we’re going to improve every step of the way we’re going to put every single layer of protection, and mitigating effort, to reduce the spread.

And there’s a final point. We have to look at this in the context of our broader data. Richard, we have fundamentally achieved over the past weeks and months, a finding of the group I know in the last week or so, was that those numbers are sort of hovering around a hundred, 120, 125. But when we look at the trajectory, we’ve made a great difference than where we were in March. When we closed schools, we as a society, parents, especially youngsters under 30, we have to do our part here to keep the community transmission low. And so I really want to encourage everyone to do their part, to continue to be vigilant as these kids go back in September


Richard Southern (09:31):
Education minister, Steven Lecce live on 680 NEWS. Last question we got this quite a few times. Will you personally be visiting and sitting in on an elementary school classroom for a full day in September?


Stephen Lecce (09:42):
I’m a minister. I’ve done a few tours this week in the past weeks. I want to, I’d love to, obviously you’re aware Richard, that the medical officers have made clear that non essential staff are not to enter schools. I love to go in, I’d love to meet with our educators in the schools. I’m speaking with them outside of schools, talking to parents and the students themselves. I want them to know I’m listening. I’m totally committed from a mental health perspective for the physical health when it comes to mitigating risk, but I’m not going to put any child or staff member at risk for the purpose of that. I’ll continue to liaise to listen and to lead in this respect and just make sure that their voices are heard


Richard Southern (10:31):
Do you truly believe this is the safest plan for students?


Stephen Lecce (10:36):
I do believe this is the safest plan for students in this country. By every measurement. Just for context, yesterday I was in Durham. They have roughly in the amount of 25 existing public health nurses that are focused on schools. They’re now hiring 34 more net new. I mean, we are literally more than doubling the amount of public health nurses dedicated to schools in Ontario. We have a testing protocol that is unique, unlike any province with asymptomatic testing of high school students. We have more investments in bus cleaning and school cleaning rigorous, deep cleaning happening daily with hundreds of thousands of custodians. I went to thank our custodians yesterday because I’m proud of them. And I know that their work they’re undertaking and the sacrifice they’re making. And I want to thank our teachers. I want to thank our principals, our school administrators, our parents. I recognize Richard, this has been a crazy year. It’s been a tough year, emotionally, socially, pedagogically, and you name it, it’s been tough. But we need to, I think honor the best of our country and the traditions of our province, which is to come together in crisis, come together when we face adversity. And I think if I could appeal to all the stakeholders and to all those at the table, just for us to work together and stick together, we’re going to get through this


Richard Southern (11:50):
Minister. I can’t thank you enough for giving us more time than you had agreed to. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much. Thank you, minister. Steven Lecce, joining us live on 680 NEWS minister. Thanks again.