TORONTO — Long-simmering concerns about Ontario's plan to send students back to school bubbled to the surface on Tuesday as children returned to class for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Students began trickling into classrooms across the province for the first time since March when the province shuttered all schools in response to rising COVID-19 case numbers.
But in the weeks since the Progressive Conservative government unveiled its plans to welcome students back for the new academic year, they have encountered concerns about class sizes and a perceived lack of physical-distancing measures from school boards, teachers and some parents.
Adam Walker, whose two daughters returned to school in Kingston, Ont., on Tuesday, said he was already troubled by his children's class sizes.
His daughter, a Grade 10 student, sent him a text message to let him know her class had 31 students. His other daughter, who is in Grade 7, told him her class had 28 students and they were being taught in the library to help with physical distancing.
"The fact that (case) numbers keep climbing and yet the government is still not taking the time to put a plan in place, that is appalling," Walker said. "It's scary and we're concerned for our health as well."
Walker said he's concerned about the risk his daughters' return to school presents to older members of his family, including his mother, who is in her late 80s.
"We won't be going to see her with my kids in school," he said. "It's just not safe."
Health Minister Christine Elliott cited the return to school, as well as a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in several parts of the province, as the reasons behind a government decision to keep existing public health measures in place for at least one more month.
The pause means current restrictions, such as caps on public gatherings or the size of social bubbles, will not change for the next 30 days.
"The reality is that spread in the community will also likely mean spread in the schools," Elliott said. "So we need to limit the spread in the community as much as possible."
Some school boards in the province are set to reopen over the next two weeks. Boards are offering a mix of in-person and online classes for those who prefer to stay at home.
High school students at the Peel District School Board, for instance, began orientation on Tuesday with elementary students returning the next day. The Toronto District School Board will not reopen schools until Sept. 15.
Toronto social science teacher Seth Bernstein said he remained concerned by the government's school reopening plan as classes were still too large and boards had not been given enough time to address serious ventilation issues in many aging schools.
"(Students are) being placed in class sizes that are going to be packed," he said. "And, at least in the Toronto area, there are a lot of schools with older ventilation issues."
Bernstein said he felt uncomfortable about his own daughter, who's in Grade 6, returning to class soon.
"We're still actually hedging and we signed her up to go back in class, but if we don't like what we see then we're going to keep her out," he said.
Heather Marlatt, a single mother of four in Brockville, Ont., said she too is concerned about what three of her kids will encounter when they head back to school on Friday.
Marlatt, who works as a personal support worker in a long-term care home, has seen the danger that COVID-19 poses and how quickly it can spread.
But she can also see the need to have children return to school and re-establish vital routines for themselves and their families.
"There really isn't any right answer," she said. "I think that the government is trying to help us get back to some sense of normal."
In Ottawa, where some students returned to class earlier this month, COVID-19 cases were reported at five French-language Catholic schools — four elementary and one high school. Ottawa Public Health was reaching out to everyone who had come in close contact with those infected, asking them to self-isolate and get tested.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the back-to-school plan puts safety first and the government would move quickly to address any outbreaks in schools.
Premier Doug Ford's government recently released new guidance on how to deal with potential COVID-19 outbreaks in schools. Those include prevention and at-home screening, while teachers and principals will be asked to isolate any child that develops symptoms at school.
Public health officials will have discretion to send entire cohorts of students home from class, or potentially close schools altogether, if they feel that is the best way to manage an outbreak.
School boards, teachers' unions and some parents have called on the government to mandate smaller class sizes to ensure physical distancing — and provide funding to make it happen.
Ontario's four major teachers' unions have appealed to the province's labour board, alleging the school reopening plan violates workplace safety laws.
The return to class comes as new COVID-19 cases continue to climb in parts of the province.
Ontario reported 375 new cases over the past two days, with 185 reported over the past 24 hours and 190 the day before. The province reported two days worth of data as a result of the Labour Day long weekend.
This article by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press