Back-to-school plan draws both fear and praise from Ontario parents

·4 min read

Ontario's parents and teachers have begun planning for back-to-school season now that the province has released its plan for September, with some saying they're concerned the strategy doesn't do enough to protect kids from the threat of COVID-19.

The Ontario Parent Action Network says the Progressive Conservative government has "abandoned" students rather than helping them return to class safely, while the province's four major teachers unions say the plan jeopardizes the safety of staff and students alike.

The plan, announced yesterday by Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce, will see elementary students and many high schoolers return to school full-time in September.

Parents can also choose to keep their kids out of class, and boards must provide options for remote learning.

Kathleen Katz, whose six-year-old daughter is headed into Grade 2, says she's particularly concerned because the government plan doesn't reduce the size of elementary school classes.

She says standard class sizes make it impossible to maintain the physical distancing protocols health officials say are essential to protect against the novel coronavirus.

"There wasn't enough information or protection for our kids," she said. "I'm scared to send my daughter. I'm scared for my friends who are teachers. Not all teachers are young."

But some parents said they were thrilled with the government announcement, including Joanna Cabral, whose two sons attend school in Peel Region.

Cabral said her kids, aged eight and 16, struggled with online learning. A return to class is welcome news for her family.

"They need that structure back," she said. "And honestly, I don't think the government would send our kids back to school if they didn't feel like they were safe."

Concern about province's new masking requirement

Cabral's eldest son, who will be in Grade 11, will only be in school half the time because Peel is one of two dozen boards where high schoolers will attend class part-time in cohorts of 15.

She said that's better than nothing, as his mental health has faltered in lockdown.

But her one concern is the province's new masking requirement, which states students in Grade 4 and up need to wear face coverings while attending class or spending time in common spaces.

"I don't know how it's gonna be for the kids," she said. "That's very hard to wear a mask."

The teachers' unions, meanwhile, have called the plan underfunded and half-baked.

"Restaurants, grocery stores and gyms will have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools given the insufficient funding allocated in this plan," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.

Cindy Law, a high school teacher, says she has many concerns about the back-to-school plan.

"What is a little bit daunting is not knowing how that program is going to look like," Law told CBC News.

"They also suggested the idea that high schools should look at keeping students who, I guess, are taking the same subjects together … and so to me that means that they want schools to reschedule and retimetable everyone … and that's a really big task."

Law said another concern is that the ministry of education didn't give enough details about what classes will look like for high school students.

Meanwhile, Law's daughter, Josephine Fong, says she "feels excited about returning to school."

'This plan is a failure,' OSSTF president says

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, says the announcement has left parents and teachers in a state of anxiety.

"In keeping with a long pattern from this government, from this ministry, this is too little too late," Bischof told CBC News.

"It doesn't come close to addressing the needs that we're going to be seeing as we move back into face-to-face education in September, and it's going to leave parents and students and educators in a continued state of anxiety."

Michael Wilson/CBC
Michael Wilson/CBC

Bischof said the ministry ignored recent guidelines from SickKids, which pointed to smaller class sizes as "the priority strategy for a safe return to school."

"They ignored that and there is no effort to bring in sufficient staffing in order to reduce the size of those classes and that means right from the start this plan is a failure," Bischof said.

"In designated areas it's in cohorts of 15; in non-designated areas, those classes can easily be at 30 students or more and I saw nothing that [says] that's an appropriate way to go in the report by the very medical experts that this ministry claims to be relying on."