Will additional measures help the safe reopening of schools?
Ontario’s back-to-school plan has been under constant heat with parents and teachers calling for safer protocols. Students are scheduled to return to classes next month and the Public Health Officials have raised concerns.
The Director of the Greater Essex County district board, Erin Kelly says that they have been awaiting the province's announcement for reopening. "We've been meeting for some time now about a return-to-school plan," she said. "Now we can get on with our plans."
The greatest challenge is the class sizes that have not been reduced in spite of constant threat of further spread of COVID-19. Premier Doug Ford has assured the public that the class sizes will be the smallest in Ontario. He said that while it's not a "perfect" plan, it still is the best "in the entire country." However, he has acknowledged the fact that despite several initiates to increase the availability of open spaces for in-person learning, and to maintain the recommended two-meter range by Canadian pubic health experts amid this pandemic won’t always be possible at schools.
It is not uncommon to find class sizes of 30 students or more among high enrolment school boards. Ontario does not have a limit to the class sizes from grade 4 through 8, just a maximum average of 24.5 across each board.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce mentioned a number of new investments and policies that were undertaken by the province for the school boards last week. One of the investments includes $30 million towards hiring staff to reduce elementary class sizes as possible. Parents exceptionally concerned have the option to choose online learning curriculums for their children.
Lecce said that there is a mandatory mask policy effective for students from grades 4 to 12, along with limiting the number of people the students may interact with and hiring of custodians and public health nurses, all collectively serving to boost safety.
According to the health officials, the class sizes must be reduced to enable sufficient physical distancing, thus ensuring that the risk of exposure to a potential case is limited to as minimum as possible. This would also help teachers to have better control over students, ensuring following proper health and safety measures. Furthermore, the current plan does not include kids of Grade 3 and younger for a mandatory mask use, unlike older students. This poses a much greater risk at worsening the spread with larger class sizes and the province’s recommendation of merely one meter’s distance between desks, conflicting with the worldwide standard of two meters.
The premier has restated in several press conferences the importance of getting children back to schools and into the classroom environment for their mental health. The current decided class size limit is 30 students for Kindergarten, with a teacher and an early child educator, 20 students for grades 1 to 3, 24.5 average for grades 4 to 8, and the average class size from grades 9 to 12 will be 23. Some at-risk schools are considering an alternating cohort model with only 15 students. There will be 500 public health nurses stationed in institutions, 900 custodial staff members will be hired to increase sanitation, teacher’s trainings for safety and special heath, PPE for all staff and students from grades 4 and up, outdoor classes and targeted testing and symptom screening, and more.