Ontario’s plan for reopening schools this fall isn’t perfect, Premier Doug Ford concedes, but it is the best in the country, he says, adding “let’s give this a shot, at least,” as criticism of the plan mounts.
Despite urgent calls from parents, teacher unions and the Opposition for smaller classes to accommodate physical distancing, elementary classes will not be reduced and most will remain at more than 15 students in a class. Regardless, Ford maintains Ontario has among the smallest class sizes in Canada.
The province’s high school classes will top out at 15 in large, urban boards such as Toronto where teens will attend halftime and learn remotely the other half.
Most of Ontario’s two million students are set to return to school full-time, with mandatory masks for staff and students in Grades 4 through 12.
“I get it — not all parents are going to be 100 per cent comfortable,” Ford said at Queen’s Park on Wednesday. “I wish I just had the magical wand, say ‘Everyone’s going to be perfectly fine,’ but let’s see. We’re relying on the best health minds in the country” for advice on reopening.
He said, “if it was up to all of us, we’d have five kids in a classroom. But in saying that, we have the lowest amount of kids in (kindergarten) in the country. We have the lowest (number of ) kids from grade one to three in the country” and classes of up to 30 in kindergarten with a teacher and early childhood educator.
“So we’re doing pretty good.” he said. “Let’s give this a shot, at least.”
Ford also said, “we’re doing everything we can, I’m not holding back on a penny here,” noting the government has ponied up $ 309 million for COVID-related costs, which, per student, is the highest among all the provinces.
That amount includes about $ 80 million for staffing, as well as $ 50 million to hire 500 public health nurses for schools, of which Ford said, “this is the best … you don’t see that anywhere else in the country.”
Ontario is also the only province to require masks for most students all day. Alberta and Nova Scotia have said older students should wear them in the hallways and on buses.
“Is it going to be perfect? No,” Ford said of the plan. “If you put two million of anyone, not to mention students, in a system, and 160,000 teachers, you know, we have to be prepared, and I feel we are. And I just want to thank all the people that we consulted with. But make no mistake about it, at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility, and I’ll make sure I do anything to keep our kids safe.”
Other provinces — such as British Columbia where Ford said parents are clamouring for a plan like Ontario’s — “don’t have half the guidelines that we have. We have some stringent guidelines, more than anyone else in the country. So we’re going to give it everything we can and make sure that we move forward and pray to God that everyone’s safe.”
But NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles blasted Ford, saying “I don’t think parents are looking for the thoughts and prayers of the premier of this province. They are looking for decisive action to protect and keep our children and education workers safe.”
She said the government needs to come up with a new plan because the current one “isn’t going to fly. … I would have never, in my wildest dreams, thought we would be here, four weeks before school starts, in a situation like this. It is absolutely unacceptable.”
Teacher and support staff unions in the Toronto District School board sent a letter Wednesday to trustees saying they “implore you to take full responsibility for a safe school reopening in September” including limiting class size to 15 students, making masks mandatory for all grades, schedules “that prioritize face-to-face learning” over online learning and increased staffing.
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Parents at a handful of schools have also urged delaying the start of the school year to ensure everyone’s safety.
“If ever there was a time to stand up to this government that puts its own bottom line ahead of everything else, it is now when the very health and safety of the students and staff in your charge are at risk,” said the letter from elementary and high school teachers, professional and support staff.
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