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Students heading back to school in September

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario says government funding is not enough

The province has announced its plan for reopening schools for the 2020-2021 school year. Families have until Aug. 12 to decide whether or not to opt out of in-person learning in September. (Photo submitted)

By Courtney Bachar/The Oshawa Express/LJI Reporter

Schools will be open in September, and families have until Aug. 12 to decide whether or not to send their kids.

The province released its plan for the reopening of schools on July 30, which outlines what school will look like at both the elementary and secondary school levels, as well as the safety protocols and that will be put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Families will need to decide by August 12 whether to send their children to school or opt out of in-person learning in September. If families do not opt out by the deadline, it will be assumed their children will be attending in person.

A statement on the DDSB’s website explains what parents should expect come the first day of school.

“The Durham District School Board’s priority is the safety and well-being of our students and staff, particularly as we prepare for the return to school in September,” states the DDSB, noting the first day of school will be filled with both excitement as well as anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want the return to school to be safe and successful for everyone,” the DDSB continues, noting the board has been in contact with the Durham Region Health Department as part of its planning process, while also following the directions set out by the Ministry of Education.

According to the DDSB’s website, elementary school students will be attending school five days a week, with students grouped together in a cohort for the full day, including recess and lunch.

Secondary school students will be learning in a hybrid format which includes both in-person and remote learning. Students will be placed in groups of about 15, attending on alternate schedules. The DDSB says the appropriate steps will be taken to ensure a safe and healthy day at school for students and staff.

As part of the board’s guide for returning to school, students and staff will be screened daily, students in Grades 4 through 12 will be required to wear non-medical or cloth masks while indoors, medical masks and face shields will be provided for all teachers and staff, extra hand-washing and sanitizing stations will be available, schools will undergo enhanced cleaning and disinfection practices, and physical distancing measures will be put in place.

Durham Student Transportation Services will also be implementing new safety measures on its buses.

The board will also be supplementing COVID-19 breakout protocols, established by the Ministry of Education in the event someone feels sick or contracts the virus.

“The implementation of our enhanced health and safety protocols will reduce the risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus,” states the DDSB. “If everyone does their part to stay safe and healthy (both inside schools and in any public setting), the likelihood that someone will contract the COVID-19 virus at school will be low. However, until the virus is eliminated around the world, there is still a risk of contracting the virus.”

These additional protocols include contact tracing, protocols for students who become ill during the school day, and what to do for students and staff with confirmed COVID-19.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Christine Elliott, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, and Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe, were on hand for the announcement in Whitby.

“It’s been hard on families to balance work and child care, while kids have been separated from friends and other kids their own age. We want to get our kids back to school, but it has to be done safely,” says Ford. “That’s why we’ve worked with our public health experts, Ontario Health and the medical experts at SickKids to develop a plan that ensures students can return to the classroom five days a week in a way that protects the health and safety of our children, teachers, and school staff.”

The government is providing more than $300 million in targeted, immediate, and evidence-informed investments, in order to help support the implementation of the enhanced protocols.

The funding includes $60 million for the procurement of medical and cloth masks; $30 million for teacher staffing to support supervision, keeping classes small, and other safety related measures; $50 million for up to 500 additional school-focused nurses for rapid-response support to schools and boards; more than $23 million for testing; $75 million for more than 900 additional custodians and cleaning supplies; $40 million to ensure safety and a clean space on school buses; $10 million for health and safety training; $10 million to support special needs students in the classroom; and $10 million to support student mental health.

“This plan reflects the best medical and scientific advice with a single aim: to keep your child safe,” says Lecce. “While this plan will continue to evolve to respond to the changing threat of COVID-19, we will remain constant and consistent in investing in the resources, staffing, cleaning supports, and strict health and safety protocols to keep our communities and our classrooms safe.”

However, in a press release, Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), says the province’s plan for a return to school falls “far short of ensuring the safety of public elementary students and educators.

“Schools are supposed to be safe places for children. This plan does not adequately address the safety of students or staff,” says Hammond, noting he feels public spaces such as restaurants and grocery stores have stricter guidelines in place.

“Restaurants, grocery stores and gyms will have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools given the insufficient funding allocated in this plan,” he says. “The successful advocacy and organizing of parents, educators and others has forced the government to add some additional investment to the reopening of schools in September. While it’s a step in the right direction, the funding to support the plan falls far short of what schools need to keep students and educators safe in September.”

ETFO is also concerned about elementary class sizes, stating it doesn’t allow for proper physical distancing, as well as the fact students in Grades 3 and under are not required to wear masks.

“Two-metre physical distancing and mask wearing have been required for indoor activities across the province. COVID-19 does not distinguish between a grocery store and a classroom, between a coffee shop or school hallways,” says Hammond, noting younger students are more active and have less self-regulation making physical distancing more difficult.

“That’s why smaller classes and mask requirements for all students are necessary,” he adds, noting the government needs to do better in terms of funding.

“The government must provide the funding necessary to allow for appropriate physical distancing in schools and ensure that all the required measures and supports are in place.”

The Ministry of Education received guidance from public health on the delivery of instruction for the 2020-2021 school year.

“Based on the current data, we are seeing that overall instances of COVID-19 are declining in Ontario,” says Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health. “When considering the health of the whole child, and as long as this trend continues, we believe that with the appropriate measures and strategies in place to handle potential outbreaks and prevent spread, schools are expected to be a safe place for Ontario’s students and staff who attend in person.”

“We will continue to closely monitor the situation to ensure the safety of students and staff and will be prepared to transition to alternative options should circumstances change.”