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'Too little too late': Opposition members react to Ford government's back-to-school plan

Last Updated Aug 3, 2021 at 4:08 pm EDT

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, centre, and Education Minister Stephen Lecce take a tour of Kensington Community School to see the measures implemented as students return to school amidst the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, September 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio

Ontario government opposition members are reacting to the Ford government’s back-to-school plan that will see students return to in-person class come September.

On Tuesday, provincial Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca issued a statement accusing Doug Ford of ignoring the science and saying the Premier “isn’t planning for a safe or supportive return to in-person learning.”

“Doug Ford is abandoning our children, parents, and education workers. Ontario Liberals are the only party with a real plan to ensure our kids can be safe and successful when they return to school in September.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ford’s plan is “rolling the dice with our kids’ wellbeing.”

“Ontario should be doing everything possible to protect students and staff, and prevent in-school learning from being disrupted by outbreaks or exposures,” said Horwath. “But Doug Ford is cutting $800 million from schools for this school year, which means penny pinching on the safety plan. He’s allowing jam-packed classrooms again. He’s not taking any new actions to get kids vaccinated or help them recover, academically or emotionally.”

“What we should have seen today is a massive investment in things like small class sizes, paid sick days and mental health and learning supports for struggling kids.”

The Green Party called on Ford to prioritize mental health in what they called a “much delayed back to school plan.”

“It’s crucial that Ford and [Stephen] Lecce address the severe mental health impact the pandemic has had on many kids across Ontario,” said GPO Deputy Leader Abhijeet Manay. “That needs to be a cornerstone of the back-to-school plan.”

Ontario students returning to schools next month will be able to play on sports teams, use instruments in music class, go on field trips and ditch masks outdoors, even if distance can’t be maintained.

The updated plan includes extracurricular activities resuming, relaxed rules on using shared spaces such as libraries and cafeterias, and continuing to require masks indoors for students in Grades 1 and up.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce will not be available to answer questions about the plan until Wednesday when he is set to announce $25 million more in ventilation funding for standalone HEPA units.

Schools with mechanical ventilation are expected to use the highest-grade filters possible and turn their systems on at least two hours before school starts, and schools without are expected to have standalone HEPA filter units in all classrooms.

“More than one month ago, Ontario Liberals proposed a real plan to get our kids back in classrooms safely and with the support they need,” Del Duca added.

“The plan called for a cap on class sizes at 20, prioritized in-person learning, more mental health support, more support for kids with special needs, and suspending the 2022 EQAO testing.”

Students will be attending in person for full days, five days a week – unless they have opted for remote learning – and high school students will have timetables with no more than two courses at a time.

However, the plan warns school boards to be prepared for potential closure, without listing circumstances that might lead to that.

Protocols may be rolled back over time, dependent on vaccination rates, but the government isn’t making shots mandatory for staff or students.

“Ontario Liberals are also the only party with the courage to follow the science on mandatory vaccinations for frontline workers in education and healthcare. Both Doug Ford and Andrea Horwath have come out against mandatory vaccinations for frontline staff in education and healthcare,” said Del Duca.

“Their lack of political courage is jeopardizing another school year for our students – Ontario’s third school year to be impacted by COVID-19.”

On Tuesday, Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath announced former president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) Harvey Bischoff will be the Ontario NDP’s candidate in Brantford-Brant.