With Ontario elementary and high school students returning to classrooms in September, many are wary of the province’s plan while they await more details.
The Ford government announced Thursday that schools will reopen full-time for most students, with a blend of in-person and remote learning at some high schools and the option of remote learning for anyone who wants it.
“The precautions now are moderate, but I still do have that worry because teenagers can be a bit irresponsible,” says 16-year-old Kirsten Kelly, soon to be a high school senior.
Kelly, who is also a Halton Catholic District School Board student trustee, adds she was disappointed when the ministry of education floated classroom-only teaching among three options, “because that would have put a lot of people, not just students, at risk.”
Elementary students and many high schoolers will be at school five days a week this fall, possibly with standard class sizes, while secondary students at two dozen boards considered higher risk — including Toronto District and Toronto Catholic — will alternate between in-class and online learning with a maximum class size of 15 to help limit the spread of COVID-19.
A report posted Saturday by the Toronto District School Board confirmed that high school students will be studying under the “quadmester” system — meaning they’ll take two courses at a time over two months, spending half of each day in school and the other half learning from home. That means teens can still earn the usual eight credits over the entire school year.
For elementary students, the board says it will “work to ensure that we don’t have overly large classes, to minimize risk,” and that it will have a better idea of class sizes once parents register their kids for in-school or full-time online learning.
Families have to let the board know their preference starting Monday, Aug. 10.
“As per direction from the Ministry of Education, students may not necessarily be able to move between remote and in-person learning, and families should anticipate the possibility of being wait-listed if they change their mind,” the board report notes.
“The opportunity to switch between remote and in-person learning will depend on the availability of an appropriate class placement. This may be at the end of an instructional period (i.e. each term at the elementary level and each quadmester at the secondary level).”
Critics of the reopening plan argue that it puts children and marginalized members of society at the most risk. It also doesn’t guarantee smaller class sizes at elementary schools, as recommended in a report by SickKids hospital. Class sizes have been capped at less than 15 in other countries where schools have reopened, according to a summary curated by the Strategic Analysis, Research and Training Centre.
Kelly said her younger sister, entering Grade 1, might be staying home to study because her parents aren’t sure she’s mature enough to understand physical distancing and the risks around her.
Premier Doug Ford said Friday that the plan was based on the best available advice, with the province committing $309 million to help cover the increased cost. Unions have accused the government of not spending enough to hire the extra teachers and custodians it would take to make classes smaller and safer.
“I think it’s really important that the ministry does commit financially, and very strongly, to funding any (personal protective equipment) requirements or extra staff,” says Cameron Prosic, public affairs co-ordinator with the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association. “When things are this unpredictable, we need to know that the ministry is committed financially as well with keeping students safe.”
Prosic adds that he’s heard from many students who are confused about what lies ahead and plan to ask their parents to keep them out of the classroom.
“I know that school boards haven’t sent out much to students,” he said. “We’ve been getting a lot of questions on our (OSTA-AECO) social media pages as well. People are pretty confused. It’s just a little bit overwhelming with the adapted model, because there hasn’t been much communication about how it will work.”
Justine Mackay, a 16-year-old senior student and student trustee with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board in Peterborough, says that has been her experience.
“Everything is really up in the air right now,” she says, adding many students don’t follow the daily news and would benefit from direct emails outlining what’s to come. “I think, at first, everything will be slightly overwhelming — jumping from distance learning right into going back full-time.
“I haven’t personally met anybody who’s fully withdrawing and studying from home, but I do think there is kind of a general anxiety in the air about returning.”
Mackay says the situation is “unprecedented,” but the government has been doing the best it can under the circumstances: “It’s really important that they keep students as their top priority.”