TORONTO -- The Ontario government has announced that school boards will have access to reserve funds in order to reduce elementary class sizes and increase physical distancing as children return to the classroom in September.

The announcement comes amid growing criticism in recent weeks over the government’s back-to-school plan, which teachers’ unions have said doesn’t go far enough to protect children from the spread of COVID-19.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the announcement “unlocks” $500 million in funding for select boards across the province. Boards that do not have access to these reserve funds will be awarded a “top up” of $11 million.

However, Lecce said that the government would not mandate the specific size of the classroom, which parents and teachers' unions alike have been calling for.

"We're providing an element of flexibility," Lecce told reporters during a news conference at Queen's Park. "But the bottom line is the concern that was cited is that there needs to be more resources in place to ensure more distancing, as well as more resources in place to enable more leasing of additional space if that's required. This investment does that."

The education minister also announced that the government will spend $50 million to update HVAC systems in schools to improve ventilation in the classrooms, as well as $18 million to help facilitate online learning through principal and support staff hires. 

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams says he stands behind the government’s back-to-school strategy while acknowledging that there is “no such thing as a totally risk free setting.”

“We feel that we're well prepared to move in,” Williams said. “If something does happen, if there is a case, we're going to move to quickly contain it, inform you, educate you and advise you of what you need to do.”

The province's plan was first announced in late July and committed $309 million in new funding to assist with the safe reopening of schools.

Under the plan, elementary school children in kindergarten through to Grade 8 will return to school five days per week across Ontario for a full day, which includes recess and lunch, with no changes to class sizes.

Conversely, secondary schools in designated boards will open on an adapted model, with class cohorts of approximately 15 students.

Teachers’ union says back-to-school plan breaks provincial law

Just before Thursday’s announcement, Ontario’s four major teachers' unions released a joint statement alleging that the province’s back-to-school plan violates its own government’s occupational health and safety legislation.

The unions — which represent some 190,000 teachers and education workers — have asked for a meeting with the minister of labour and representatives to discuss the issue by next Friday.

They argue there is a lack of scientific consensus on significant aspects of COVID-19 and as such, the province is required under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act to implement all reasonable measures to reduce the risks posed by the virus.

They allege the provincial plan fails to provide adequate health and safety protections such as smaller class sizes, minimal measurable standards for ventilation in schools, and mandatory masking for younger children.

 With files from the Canadian Press and Sean Davidson.