Province outlines back-to-school plan

Ontario Premier Doug Ford details back to school plans at Father Leo in Whitby, July 29, 2020. Image from Premier of Ontario/YouTube.

Students will be heading back to the classroom in September.

Premier Doug Ford announced Thursday afternoon that a plan has been put in place to safely return Ontario’s thousands of elementary students to school on a full-time basis this fall. The announcement was made alongside Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Health Minister Christine Elliott, and others at Father Leo J. Austin Catholic Secondary School in Whitby.

The Ministry of Education will reopen all elementary schools for full-time, in-person learning, five days a week. For many secondary schools, classes will reopen on a hybrid model, with a maximum of 15 students per class alternating between in-person and online instruction. High schools with lower risk profiles will have full-time, in-person instruction. The Thames Valley District School Board, the London District Catholic School Board, the Greater Essex County District School Board, and the Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board are among the boards that will have the hybrid model in secondary schools. The Avon Maitland District School Board, Huron Perth District Catholic School Board, the Lambton-Kent District School Board, and the St. Clair Catholic District School Board will see high school students attend class in person each day.

“We want you to know that on September 8, you’ll be able to drop your child off at school, knowing that every possible measure has been taken to keep your child safe,” said Ford. “This plan was developed by the top health experts in Ontario.”

Students attending school in-class will remain in one classroom throughout the day, with a lunch period and breaks worked into the schedule.

Wearing face protection will be mandatory for students in Grades 4 through 12, and recommended for students in kindergarten through Grade 3. Ontario is the first Canadian province to mandate the use of masks in classrooms.

The province has also allowed for $309-million in funding to help school buildings with cleaning and disinfecting. Teachers will be provided with access to masks, face shields, and cleaning supplies. Also, hundreds of public health nurses will be hired to work with school boards.

Lecce reinforced that the plan was put together with the top priority being the protection and safety of students, teachers, and educational staff. In addition, child care centres will be allowed to reopen at full capacity on September 1, and parents will also have options for child care if needed.

“Child care and early years programs will operate with additional health and safety procedures in place upon fully reopening. And rest assured, if at any time the health and safety of the children is jeopardized, we will take action immediately,” said Lecce.

Reaction to the back-to-school plan has been swift, and critical, from members of the Official Opposition as well as the so-called “Big 4” education unions in Ontario. Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), says more must be done to adequately fund a safe return to school for everyone involved.

“While the announcement of new funding is welcome, it’s quite clear that the Ford government isn’t willing to pay the full cost of ensuring the safety of students and educators in September,” said Hammond. “The premier promised Ontarians that he ‘will spare no expense’ to keep people safe, yet he and Education Minister Stephen Lecce are betraying that promise to students, educators, parents and communities with this ill-prepared plan.”

The heads of the other education unions, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), and the French Catholic AEFO, expressed similar sentiments.

At Queens Park, MPP Marit Stiles of Davenport, the NDP education critic, said the plan did not allow for adequate hiring of additional teachers, working out to an average of $16,000 of additional funding per school.

“Classrooms were already overcrowded, and the Ford government is sending kids right back into those packed classrooms. These kids should be in smaller class sizes so they can physically distance, and reduce the chances of spreading an outbreak,” said Stiles. “Funding a pathetic $16,000 per school for more staff means schools can’t break up kids into smaller, safer groups.”