TORONTO — A new plan to reopen the Ontario’s schools in September is coming next week, the province’s education minister said Thursday, conceding that the government could do more to provide resources and training to staff in light of the pandemic.
During a news conference at a school in Brampton, Ont., Stephen Lecce said he is finalizing the reopening plans with provincial health officials including Ontario’s chief medical officer.
The development comes after weeks of pressure from parents and educators for more details about the plan to reopen schools.
“We’re finalizing the health protocols, working very closely with the chief medical officer and the best pediatric minds in the nation that are informing the plan. We believe we’ll be able to unveil it next week,” Lecce said.
“That will include additional supports and resources to enable our boards to succeed … I appreciate that there’s more we can do.”
The Ministry of Education has asked all 72 of Ontario’s school boards to prepare plans for three possible scenarios — a full-time return to in-person learning, virtual classes for all, or a hybrid model that combines the two.
Boards must submit plans for all scenarios by early August, and the proposals will be subject to government approval before they can be implemented.
With Lecce’s announcement Thursday, it now appears the province will make its reopening announcement before it receives those plans from the school boards.
The education minister originally said hybrid learning was the government’s preference, but has since indicated a preference to see all students back in class full-time.
Critics have said that will require more resources to hire and train new teachers, purchase personal protective equipment (PPE), and make changes to school buildings to ramp up COVID-19 safety protocols.
Lecce said the ministry could not announce funding for that work any sooner than next week because the COVID-19 case count in the province has been fluid.
“A month ago we were in a different position,” he said.
With just six weeks left until Ontario schools are set to reopen, parents, teachers and school boards are growing increasingly frustrated with what they say is a lack of details and funding for a safe return to class.
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said that union has had no “meaningful consultations” with the government about its school reopening plan.
“Basically, there is no new money currently committed to dealing with COVID,” Harvey Bischof said. “We need to hear that there is a serious commitment to providing the funding that’s required to put the things in place that will make the return to school safe and effective.”
Andrea Grebenc, chair of the Halton District School Board, said her schools simply can’t operate full-time with the funding that has currently been promised by the provincial government.
She said the province has only committed to $56 million in extra funding provincewide, which would leave the Halton board with less than a million dollars if the funding were split equally.
“At this point it looks like it’ll cost us $2 million per month just for masks,” said Grebenc, who called the funding a “drop in the bucket.”
With the current funding model, an every-day schooling plan proposed by the Halton board would only be able to accommodate elementary students in-class for three hours per day, Grebenc said.
Parent Shannon Boeckner said she and her partner came to terms with school closures in spring, and managed to balance work and educating their children because the summer break was their light at the end of the tunnel.
But the prospect of another full school year with some form of at-home learning is crushing, she said.
“When you expect us to continue to hold it together and ask our employers to continue to be flexible and supportive when we have to balance child care and work during the day, it’s not reasonable,” said Boeckner, who works full-time and has two kids, aged six and nine.
“We’ve been holding up our end of the bargain. Now the government really needs to step in and help parents who are struggling.”
David Mandelzys, a parent and teacher with the TDSB, said his priority is to send his kids back to school in a safe environment.
He and his partner also work full-time, and say they have no idea how they’d get by if schools opened on a hybrid model.
“If we don’t fully fund a safe reopening, we’re in for disaster this fall,” said Mendelzys.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords and Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press