Premier Frustrated, Teachers Concerned, Many Questions Lingered Since School Boards in Ontario Release Back-To-School Plans

As the start of the new school year is a couple weeks away, parents in Ontario have until Friday to decide whether they will be sending their kids back to school in September. 

Parents have spoken up and say they still have questions and concerns about back-to-school plans that were released earlier this week as Premier Doug Ford expresses his frustration with the lack of cooperation from the province’s teachers’ unions on Wednesday afternoon. 

During the provincial government’s daily press conference, Premier Ford spoke to reporters at Queen’s Park Toronto asking for cooperation from the teachers’ unions across Ontario. 

“I’m asking for the teachers’ unions cooperation,” said Premier Ford. “Why can’t the teachers’ unions get along with us?”.

“If I can work and everyone can work together in the whole country, we’ve faced so many problems with this pandemic, why can’t we work with the teachers’ unions?” added the Premier.

“(They’re) just constantly, you know, out there fighting. We can’t get things done. I just don’t understand it. I just don’t.”

During the press conference, Premier Ford said his senior staff had sat in over 120 meetings with the teachers’ unions while the government developed the back-to-school plan. 

However, since the province released the plan, the teachers’ union has expressed multiple safety concerns including class sizes, an issue that was previously brought up in the negotiations between the provincial government and teachers’ unions last year. 

According to the teachers’ union, with the current back-to-school plan, regular class sizes for elementary school students will put educators at a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19. 

Addressing the comments made from the teachers’ union, Premier Ford said while no major changes will be made to the back-to-school plan, an updated announcement is coming in the next few days. 

“The Minister of Education will be coming out in the next very short while for an announcement,” said Premier Ford. 

“It goes back to listening, we are listening, we’re listening to everyone from the health experts, to the teachers’ unions, to the front-line workers. I’m out there listening to them.”

“It’s going to be a great announcement, it’s going to be a positive announcement.”

Brief Review of Ontario’s Current Back-To-School Plan

According to the back-to-school plan that was released by the provincial government, most students in Ontario will physically be back in class for September, however, their class schedules and sizes may vary depending on where they live. 

Back to Class: 

All elementary school students and many high school students will be returning to school five days a week in standard class sizes during the fall. 

Currently, only secondary school students at two dozen school boards, that are at higher risks of spreading the virus, will attend class for half the time during the school week. 

For the remaining school days of the week, these secondary school students will be spending time working on “curriculum-linked independent work”. 

Additionally, parents will have the option to keep their kids out of class and the school boards must provide options for remote learning for these students. 

Groupings and Smaller Class Sizes for High School Students

As previously mentioned, high school students in high-risk regions will return to school with class sizes capped at 15 students per classroom. 

While elementary school students do not have the smaller class sizes, they will be grouped into cohorts and their exposure to different teachers will be limited. 

Physical distancing measures

While Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the aim is to keep students one metre apart from each other, a guidance document says only that schools should promote “as much distancing as possible” rather than being strictly enforced.

Masks:

Masks will be mandatory for students in Grades 4 through 12 and will be strongly encouraged for younger kids when they’re in indoor common areas. Staff will be expected to wear masks.

Transportation

Some school boards may have more than one student assigned to a seat. When physical distancing isn’t possible, masks will be mandatory for students in Grades 4 to 12, and younger students will be encouraged but not required to do the same.

New routines

Students in some districts will have to pre-register for in-person schooling. Some schools may limit or even ban visitors, including parents. Breaks will be scheduled to allow students to wash their hands.

How are parents reacting to the province’s back-to-school plans? 

Ariel Troster’s daughter will be starting Grade 3, which the OCDSB will cap at 23 students per class.

“I worry about a lack of hard caps on [older] class sizes, too many children crowded into a room,” she said. 

“We can sanitize and wash our hands as much as we want, but we know this is a virus that is spread by respiratory droplets.”

According to Ms. Troster said she would have liked to see more creative thinking from the OCDSB in terms of outdoor teaching, as well as improved ventilation and air filtration in older buildings.

“It’s like slapping a mask on a kid instead of dealing with the major structural problems in schools that would potentially make them unsafe.” 

Danielle Veal, whose two sons will attend kindergarten and Grade 1 at St. Andrew School in Nepean, said she understands the OCSB is in a tough spot when it comes to class sizes, but said both the ministry and the boards need to recognize young lives are at stake.

“I’m looking at it and it’s very vague,” Veal said. “It’s saying cleaning supplies as necessary, [but] who decides how much is necessary? What kind of supports are teachers getting?”

Veal, who said continuing online learning isn’t an option for her family, said she’s particularly worried about one of her sons who received daily one-on-one attention for his special needs.

“What does that mean for the other children? If my child who does need extra help doesn’t get extra help … then becomes a disruption for other children in that class,” she said. “It makes it harder for them to learn, for them to follow the rules.”

Doug Manuel, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, has two children who plan to start grades 4 and 6 at Hopewell Public School.

“We know we’re going back with some risk of COVID, but as long as we can have good surveillance and know if cases are getting closer and closer to home, then we can respond appropriately,” he said.

He said he expects the plans to change depending on the presence of the virus in the community, and he noted measures in Ontario are less stringent than in countries such as Finland and Denmark, where reopening was successful.

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