TORONTO -- The Ontario government will be allowing boards to adopt a “staggered start” to the first week of school in September.

The Progressive Conservatives said they informed the chairs of district school boards in a memo that if they wanted to allow students to start class on different days, they had the government’s permission.

“School boards will be permitted to adopt a staggered start to the first week of the school year, such as allowing different grades to return on different days, if boards feel that this would contribute to students learning new routines and for new health and safety practices to be reinforced.”

“School boards will not need to seek any adjustment to previously approved school calendars should they choose to adopt this approach.”

Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park on Friday afternoon, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the decision was made after school boards indicated concern over having hundreds of students coming through the front doors at once come Sept. 8.

“We're allowing them to stagger the start, meaning for the first week if they want to do kindergarten and Grade 1 on day one, and then introduce, it could be the Grade 2s and (Grade) 3s the next day and sort of build that up to Friday, that is fair.”

The education minister dismissed the idea of a lengthier staggering in which schools would allow a week or two to pass before allowing more students to return to classes, saying only that if boards want to take “a few extra days” he would be open to it.

“I know that there's an overall broader imperative to get the kids back into class so we know that for their wellness and their development and their mental health, but we're going to be flexible,” he said. “We're going to be reasonable and we're going to be evidence-based according to the public health recommendations to make sure that we do this safely, we do this right in September.”

As it stands under the current back-to-school plan in Toronto, children in kindergarten through Grade 8 will be attending school five days a week in full classrooms. High schools students will be divided into smaller cohorts of about 15, with half-day in-class learning and half-day online learning.

On Thursday, after weeks of criticism and backlash, Lecce announced that the provincial government would “unlock” $500 million in reserve funding for school boards to help reduce class sizes and increase physical distancing.

The province has not yet mandated smaller classrooms and has consistently said that it is up to each school board to decide how big classrooms should be.

Lecce reiterated that statement on Friday, saying they are less concerned about the quantity within the classroom and more concerned about physical distancing.

“We want to ensure distance it can be respected at least one meter, coupled with all the other preventative measures we put in place to improve safety.”

Public Health officials have said for months that people should stay at least two meters apart to ensure proper physical distancing.

Dipping into reserve funds could lead to ‘future financial risks,’ TDSB says

Some school boards, including the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), have said that much of its reserved funds are earmarked for ongoing projects and that dipping into them could lead to “future financial risks for the board.”

“It would not be prudent or good financial management if we were to use a large amount of reserve funds to cover the entire cost of smaller class sizes,” a letter written by the interim director of education with the TDSB said.

The TDSB says it is instead working with staff to see if some of the reserve funds could be used to augment a previously announced $30 million to hire additional staff in Toronto.

In the meantime, the board said that it may need to delay or stagger the start of the school year in order to figure out where those smaller classes can take place.

“The money would allow the schools to lower elementary class sizes but because not all schools have the space in the buildings they need to look at other options in the community,” TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said in a statement. “Discussions were underway earlier with the mayor’s office about city centres.”

Bird added that further discussions will take place at a meeting on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Toronto Mayor John Tory has said that he has already offered to work with the TDSB to find additional classroom space at city-owned facilities.

"I did make the offer early on to the school board, and the minister is well aware of this, that if the city could help through the use of community spaces... that I would be quite happy to entertain those requests.," he said. "As yet, we haven't had any formal requests."

Parents want their kids back in class, Lecce says

Speaking to CP24 on Friday, Lecce said that while the government approves of staggering the start of classes, he does not want the school year delayed.

"If school boards want to stagger the opening, to mitigate having a mass volume of students entering schools on the first day, that seems prudent. But parents really want to get their kids back in to class. There's an overwhelming medical and mental health and developmental imperative that parents get their kids back in school."

Lecce went on to say that both he and Ontario Premier Doug Ford believe their back-to-school plan is now adequately funded for a safe return to class in the fall.

"I think we can be ready. We are making the investments and boards are working hard."