Federal back-to-school guidelines urge phased-in return to classes, face shields for teachers
Canada’s new back-to-school COVID-19 guidelines include many of the measures already adapted by the Ontario government, but go further urging a phased in return to class, face shields for teachers and Plexiglas dividers.
The federal document released Friday also suggests better ventilation for schools and moving classes outdoors where weather and space permit.
Those are in addition to distancing measures Ontario schools already plan to adopt such as reduced hallway traffic and non-medical masks for students and teachers.
The national guidelines recommend reduced room occupancy to allow for distancing, but there are no specifics about lowering class sizes.
Concerns about class sizes have been raised by Toronto Public Health officials. The issue is a key point of contention between Premier Doug Ford’s government and many parents and teachers. They fear that current elementary class sizes — in particular kindergarten and Grades 4-8 where classes can hit around 30 students — puts too many children and teachers in the same room.
Experts from the Hospital for Sick Children have also said they cannot support a plan where physical distancing is compromised by the number of students in a room.
Toronto District School Board (TDSB) chair Robin Pilkey said she has received emails from parents telling her that the board has a moral imperative to lower class sizes. But it can’t be done without more money for teachers.
“In some classrooms it will be fine and in some classrooms it will be problematic,” she said.
“It’s a tricky position we’ve been put in and I’m hoping the (provincial) government will reconsider this,” said Pilkey.
Ontario has provided $30 million for about 300 additional teachers and boards have to apply for the funding on a case-by-case basis.
“If we do get money for that we would likely put it in areas of the city that have a higher incidence of COVID so we can make those classes smaller,” said Pilkey.
On Monday the board begins a pre-registration survey to determine how many children are coming back to school and plan class sizes and teacher placements accordingly. But Pilkey said it’s difficult for parents to say whether they want to send their kids back because they don’t know what school will look like.
“You’ve got to wonder if that’s part of the government’s strategy — hoping people just won’t come,” she said.
Students that don’t return will receive online instruction but it won’t necessarily be taught by the teachers from their own school. The board hopes to use teachers who can’t return to school because of their own health considerations to run lessons remotely, said Pilkey.
The TDSB already plans for teachers and students above Grade 4 to wear non-medical masks. While elementary classes will continue in as conventional a manner as possible, high school will lower class sizes by rotating students who will take turns going to school and have a modified “quadmester” program of learning where they focus on two courses at a time rather than the usual four.
There are no plans to build physical barriers that could be potentially isolating for children in modern classrooms that don’t easily support divided desk configurations, said Pilkey. But if it was the only way to keep kids safe, it could be considered.
She said there is merit in looking at a phased-in start to the school year that would allow schools to see how things are working with smaller numbers in attendance. But that is a provincial decision and for now, everyone goes back on Sept. 8.
Decisions haven’t been made about face shields for teachers but it could be considered for staff that move from class to class. Pilkey said she couldn’t see an objection if staff felt safest wearing them.
The federal document called, COVID-19 guidance for schools Kindergarten to Grade 8, is not prescriptive but designed to be used alongside provincial guidelines with local health conditions in mind, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said.
“Given that physical distancing may not always be possible in school settings it’s important to layer multiple measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread,” she said.
Measures will vary across school settings and student populations.
The province has responded to some of school boards’ priorities such as personal protective and cleaning equipment, mental health, special education and training, said a statement from Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA).
“However, a number of school boards remain concerned about the lack of sufficient funding to reduce class sizes as recommended in the Sick Kids report, as well as the federal guidelines,” she said.
Get the latest in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star, including up-to-date coronavirus coverage, with our email newsletters
Abraham said the association will continue to advocate for “sufficient funding to make the return to school as safe as possible.”
A spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce called the Ontario back-to-school plan “a living document” that is meant to adapt to scientific advice as it emerges.
“We are proud to lead the nation in funding per student, an aggressive masking policy for Grades 4 to 12, hiring over 1,300 custodians and an additional cleaning funding, along with the hiring of 500 public health nurses to support student health in our schools,” said Alexandra Adamo.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
What do you think of the federal guidelines?