TORONTO — Most of Ontario's students will return to traditional classrooms full time in September, the province announced Thursday as it released a back-to-school plan critics argue prioritizes cost-savings over kids' health.
Elementary students and many high schoolers will be in school five days a week in standard class sizes, while secondary students at two dozen boards that are higher risk will only attend class half the time in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Those high schoolers will have a maximum class size of 15, and will receive "curriculum-linked independent work" on days when they are not in school.
"We're taking every step and every precaution to be ready for September," Premier Doug Ford said. "While we're facing an unprecedented situation, we're prepared for anything, armed with the best medical advice available to protect your child at school."
Opposition parties staunchly disagreed with that characterization.
Marit Stiles, education critic for the Opposition NDP, said the Tories were cutting corners in order to save money and argued that failing to reduce cohort-size for elementary students was a dangerous oversight.
"Many, many classrooms are packed to the rafters," she said. "We hear stories all the time about teachers not being able to fit enough desks into the classroom to manage the existing cohort, so how can we possibly expect students to be at a distance and to remain at that distance?"
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca agreed, pointing to a SickKids report released Wednesday, which recommended that the province prioritize smaller class sizes.
It also recommended that elementary-aged kids be kept one metre apart from each other, and high schoolers be kept two metres apart.
While Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the aim is to keep students one metre apart from each other, a guidance document says only that schools should promote "as much distancing as possible."
Instead of strictly enforcing physical distancing, the document says schools will be leaning more heavily on other public health measures, including keeping students separated into designated groups — or "cohorts" — and encouraging hand hygiene.
The plan gives parents the option to keep their kids out of class, and says boards must make it possible for students to learn remotely.
It says students in grades 4 through 12 must wear masks in class, while younger kids are encouraged to do so in indoor common areas.
Lecce said that's because the latest science suggests older kids are more likely to spread the virus than their younger counterparts.
That's also why some boards can only have high schoolers in class part time, he said.
The goal is also to keep everyone out of school when they're sick, Lecce said.
"We will also be supporting public health efforts by continuing to promote our screening protocols so that students and staff do not show up to school if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, even if they are mild," he said.
Should a student or staff member develop symptoms while in school, they are to be immediately separated from others until they can get home — and not on student or public transit.
Anyone with symptoms is to be tested. If they test positive, they can only return to class once they're given the go-ahead by public health officials, the document says. Those who test negative after an initial positive test can only return once they've been symptom-free for 24 hours.
Lecce added that teachers who are immunocompromised or feel unsafe returning to class for other reasons can focus their efforts on teaching students who are opting for remote learning.
The government also announced $309 million in funding to make the plan work, including $60 million for personal protective equipment and $80 million for extra staffing.
In a joint statement, the province's four major teachers' unions said that simply isn't enough money to ensure a safe return to class for staff and students.
"The premier promised Ontarians he 'will spare no expense' to keep people safe, yet he and ... Lecce are betraying that promise to students, educators, parents and communities with this ill-prepared plan," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
The highly anticipated announcement came just six weeks before back-to-school season and a week before the province's 72 school boards were initially asked to submit their plans for the academic year.
The government further announced Thursday that day-care centres across the province will be allowed to return to their full capacity on September 1, in time for back-to-school.
The announcements came as Ontario logged fewer than 100 new cases of COVID-19 for a second day in a row, with 89 new cases reported on Thursday.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 28 of the province's 34 public health units are reporting five or fewer cases, with 17 reporting no new ones.
She said the number of people in hospital, in intensive care and on a ventilator all went down, and the province was able to complete more than 27,600 tests the previous day.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2020.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press