Horwath slams back-to-school plan, calls for smaller class sizes

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath speaks outside of Eagle Heights Public School on Oxford Street West, August 25, 2020. (Photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

Using a London elementary school as a backdrop, Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath has again called on the Ford government to rethink its back-to-school plan and lower class sizes to prevent new outbreaks of COVID-19.

The NDP Leader spoke Tuesday morning outside of Eagle Heights Public School on Oxford Street West. She criticized Premier Doug Ford for not making the necessary financial investment to ensure schools are safe to return to this September, while also applauding the measures school boards have taken.

“Right here at Eagle Heights we know they have done a lot to try to make it as safe as possible for the return to school… handwashing stations, signage, and floor markings. They’ve worked hard on student timetables, to spread desks out as far as they possibly can in the classroom,” said Horwath. “It is apparent the board is doing their part to try to make the schools safe. But it is not going to work if you’re still cramming up to 30 kids into a classroom, which is what Mr. Ford is expecting schools to do.”

Last year, Eagle Heights operated at 145 per cent capacity and required 17 portables in order to accommodate the number of students. It has the highest student population among the Thames Valley District School Board’s elementary schools.

Horwath is demanding class sizes be capped at no more than 15 students at all schools across Ontario.

“If I was the premier right now, I would be making sure I was hiring thousands of extra teachers, I would be making sure I was sourcing extra classroom spaces, and making sure every school had touchless faucets and proper air ventilation,” said Horwath. “I would certainly not be simply crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. I would be taking action to make sure schools are safe.”

Horwath went on to accuse Ford of “pinching pennies.”

“What we have is a situation where parents are beside themselves while trying to make that very difficult decision no parent should have to decide on – whether or not to send their children back to school or whether or not to stay home from work and try to support their kids with distance learning,” said Horwath. “The bottom line is Mr. Ford has put together a bargain-basement scheme that is not what parents, children, and education workers deserve.”

Howath was joined at Tuesday’s gathering by local New Democrat MPPs Teresa Armstrong, Terence Kernaghan, and Peggy Sattler, as well as local president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario Craig Smith.

“Teachers are concerned that the government’s plan will not keep them and the students in their care safe,” said Smith, who echoed Horwath’s call to reduce class sizes. “What we don’t want to see is that the schools opening cause us to have another outbreak or move back to where we were in March… it is incumbent of the government to step up and provide the support for the board that they need.”

He added that, in order for a safe plan to be enacted, the Thames Valley board would need to hire an additional 350 teachers.

“There is no commitment from the government to do that at this point,” said Smith.

Ontario children have not been back inside the classroom since March when all schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ford government originally allocated $309 million when it announced its back-to-school plan in June. Since then it has offered up an additional $68 million including $50 million for school ventilation system upgrades. Under the province’s plan, elementary students will return to school during normal hours, five days per week with only those in Grade 4 to 12 required to wear face masks. Students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 will be encouraged to wear face coverings, but they are not mandatory.

Parent Sara McNeil speaks about the difficult decision to keep her 4-year-old home from school this year, August 25, 2020. (Photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

Parent Sara McNeil

Parent Sara McNeil, whose four-year-old was to start school at Eagle Heights this September, said she has made the difficult decision to keep her daughter home.

“When we signed her up in January we were so excited, she was so excited and couldn’t wait to go to big kid school,” said McNeil.

But the decision to keep the youngster, who suffers from severe asthma, home came soon after the province unveiled its back-to-school plan. Individuals with asthma are considered high risk from COVID-19.

“When I saw that plan to put my daughter into a school with full class sizes, with no major infrastructure upgrades for ventilation systems and no mandate for masks under Grade 4… I could not believe that Mr. Ford would think that this approach was acceptable in any way shape or form.

McNeil said the plan left her stunned and shaking. She went as far as to email the Ministry of Education with her concerns, but that was met with a form reply that she said did not address her concerns.

“They are not listening to us. That is unacceptable,” said McNeil.

Students are slated to return to school on September 8. The Thames Valley District School Board said last week it will be among the Ontario boards that stagger start dates for elementary students returning to class. Approximately 69,000 students within the board will be attending in-person classes, while 12,000 will be learning remotely from home.