TORONTO — The higher-than-expected interest in online learning for the coming school year means Canada's largest school board will be able to keep class sizes relatively low, the organization said Thursday.
A spokesman for the Toronto District School Board said a recent survey of parents and guardians showed 30 per cent of respondents with elementary-age children plan to keep their kids at home, while 22 per cent of those with high schoolers plan to do the same.
Ryan Bird said the strong uptake for virtual learning means all but five of the board's schools will have enough room to ensure proper physical distancing measures among students and staff.
The board is currently working out how to reduce crowding in those buildings, he added, noting the board is willing to look into leasing space from the city in order to preserve physical distance.
During his daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford hailed the development as good news.
"That's pretty good considering the size of the TDSB, and we'll help them out," Ford said. "We're ready. There will be bumps in the road as sure as I'm standing here, but I have confidence in the system."
The TDSB collected its registration data as part of a survey that drew a response from 89 per cent of parents and guardians.
The board said it's trying to follow up with nearly 30,000 parents or guardians who did not respond to the survey.
School boards have spent recent weeks surveying parents to determine exactly how many students are opting for remote learning and how many will be returning to class over the next two weeks.
West of Toronto at the Halton Catholic board, trustee Nancy Guzzo said just 15 per cent of elementary and high school students will be learning from home.
Guzzo said the board will nonetheless be able to implement a new average elementary class size of 22, with a hard cap at 25 students per class. The plan will cost $6.8 million and require 52 new teachers, and may require five more portable classrooms, Guzzo said.
She said just under half the funding for the plan comes from the school's reserves, while the rest is paid for by federal and provincial funding.
"Nobody likes to tap into their capital reserves because it is there for a reason, but this is a very important reason to do that," said Guzzo.
"(Reducing class sizes) has been a priority for everybody since Day 1."
Under Ontario's back-to-school plan, two dozen boards — including both the TDSB and Halton Catholic board — will see high schoolers only attending class half the time so class sizes can be reduced to cohorts of 15.
The province did not mandate smaller class sizes for elementary schools, a move the government continues to stand behind despite criticism from opposition parties, school boards and teachers unions.
The TDSB, however, has chosen to lower class sizes in some neighbourhoods deemed at high risk of COVID-19 outbreaks by Toronto Public Health.
The board took that approach after initially proposing a plan that would have reduced elementary class sizes in all schools. The province rejected that proposal because it would have required the board to reduce class time.
The city's health agency said it used socio-economic factors and case rates to declare 81 schools high risk. The TDSB added 13 to that tally based on larger enrolment and concerns over physical classroom sizes.
Most of the schools designated high risk were in the city's northwest region, which includes the Etobicoke North, York Centre and York South-Weston wards.
Class sizes at such schools will be capped at 15 for kindergarten students and 20 for grades 1 to 8.
The board said class sizes are generally capped at 27 for kindergarten and grades 4 through 8, and 20 for grades 1 through 3.
As the province's daily case numbers for COVID-19 remain in the triple digits, Bird said the board will look to Toronto Public Health for any advice moving forward.
Most students at TDSB schools will return for the first day of class on Sept. 15. Elementary students will return over a staggered, three-day start from Sept. 15 to 17.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2020.
Salmaan Farooqui and Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press