The Ontario government released three plans for how schools will operate in September, but said they don’t expect classrooms will be made of more than 15 students right away as the province continues to grapple with the challenges of COVID-19.
Publically-funded schools in Ontario were shuttered after March Break as the province struggled to contain the novel coronavirus. The province set up online learning tools to keep students engaged, but in mid-May they decided to close schools for the rest of the year.
Since then, parents and teachers have largely been kept in the dark about whether or not schools will reopen come the fall.
Speaking virtually at Queen’s Park on Friday alongside Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that the safety of students and staff was the government’s top priority.
He presented three possible options for schools reopening in September and said that it will be up to each school board to decide what’s best for their region, in consultation with medical and government officials.
Students will either return to in-person instruction while adhering to public health measures, continue using remote learning strengthened by live instruction, or take part in a blending of the first two options that will see students attend school on alternative days or weeks.
Lecce then went on to say that in September, while school boards will have plans in place for all three scenarios, he expects Ontario students “will enter into a cautious adaptive delivery model” where classrooms will be made of no more than 15 students at a time with a single teacher.
He said that after September, the models will be re-evaluated.
"Should Ontario continue to flatten the curve and continue to make gains we will allow school boards to move closer to a conventional classroom experience, with stringent health and safety protocols in place," Lecce said.
Ford said that any parent who doesn’t feel comfortable sending their child to school will continue to be allowed to stay home and participate in online learning.
“You need certainty but if you don’t feel comfortable – we will keep at-home learning available for your child.”
As businesses in the majority of the province begin to reopen on Friday, Lecce said that he understands that part-time school attendance may provide a challenge for parents who are working full-time, but the government’s priority is the safety of students.
“Out of an abundance of caution, given that we’re going from six months of closed schools to two million kids in school in September, we‘ve got to get this right. My instruction from the premier was to do whatever it takes to ensure a successful, positive and safe reopening.”
The government has said that key elements of each safety plan will include protocols on screening, use of personal protective equipment, cleaning and additional support for mental health.
The announcement comes two days after an advisory group from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto released a series of recommendations on how to reopen schools safely, including screening students for symptoms, encouraging proper hand hygiene, advising against the use of face masks for students, and implementing some physical distancing measures.
MORE: Hand hygiene, no face masks: SickKids experts on how schools can safely reopen
Medical experts at the hospital stressed the return to school in September is critical to avoid adverse health and welfare consequences.
Ontario's New Democratic Party Education Critic said that the government's plans to reopen schools "failed to provide any clarity."
"What few details they did provide are impossible in practice," Marit Stiles said in a statement. "Many parents can’t choose to stay home and teach their kids if they don’t like the re-opening plan, and it’s totally unrealistic to add zero new teachers and expect teachers to juggle students who are rotating between classrooms and emergency distance learning."
Stiles added that the government left the "heavy lifting" to the school boards.
"It’s time for this government to go back to the drawing board, and work with students, parents and educators to come up with a concrete plan, and commit the funding to support it.”
According to the Toronto District School Board, plans for reopening must be submitted to the ministry by Aug. 4.
Ontario also announced it is scalling up its education spending ahead of the next school year.
The Ford government will give school boards $25.5 billion during the 2020-2021 school year, an increase of $736 million compared to the previous school year, to pay for education staff, textbooks, learning materials, technology and other classroom supplies.
The additional spending means the government is now setting aside $12,525 per enrolled student for the upcoming school year – a 2 per cent or $250 increase from the previous year.
While $15 million is reserved for COVID-19 specific spending, including the hiring of mental health workers and to purchase classroom computers, over $200 million stems from this year’s negotiations with education unions.
The government was forced to restore the Local Priorities Fund during a protracted battle with unions, but rebranded it as the Support for Students Fund, which the government says ensures money is directed toward student needs and will increase the number of custodians in schools.
Another $20 million is being spent on student transportation to account for new COVID-19 alternate seating requirements, while the school operations budget is being increased by $40 million for cleaning.
Government sources say a "major cost driver" of school board funding is student enrollment, which is expected to be higher during the 2020 school year.