Teacher David Moore says he's starting the school year feeling "unbelievably stressed."
A top reason? The inability to keep the 26 students in his Grade 4 and 5 split class physically distanced.
"The class sizes are far too large. The kids are unvaccinated, and they are right on top of each other," said Moore, who teaches in Keswick, Ont., about 20 km north of Newmarket.
Moore says he's lucky to get 50 centimetres between his pupils — spacing he's worried will have little to no effect when kids take their masks off to eat or drink.
Sacha Coutu, a parent in Sarnia, Ont., has the same concerns.
"At our local school, class sizes are higher than I've ever known them to be," said Coutu, whose daughter is in a Grade 6 and 7 split class of 27 kids.
"In my older daughter's class, she says the desks are put together in pairs. So she is right up against another student," Coutu told CBC Toronto.
Students eager to get back to class
The provincial government is not imposing hard caps on the number of students in each class, instead asking teachers to create "as much distance as possible" inside classrooms by removing unnecessary furniture, among other measures.
With so many students eager to get back to physical classrooms, that's no easy task, says Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.
"Last year, we had some classes that were at no more than 15 [students] … with numbers in schools opening at 100 per cent, that really isn't possible at many of our settings this year," she said.
"Everybody wants to be there, but how do you make sure that people are going to be safe?"
Littlewood says she would have liked to see the province put more money into virtual schools so students could avoid the less-appealing hybrid model being used by some boards.
"We should have started with lower numbers; we should have started with more funding for virtual schools," she said.
Bumping up against school capacity
Others, like Toronto District School Board trustee Christopher Mammoliti, have raised the possibility of bringing on more staff to address larger class sizes.
"Last year, we received some pandemic funding that allowed us to allocate more resources, including staff," he said.
But with school boards now full beyond their capacity, even if more resources were freed up, space would still be at a premium.
That's why Barb Dobrowolski, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, would still like to see more investment in both more staff and somewhere to put them.
"Invest in more portables, invest in more teachers. I think that's going to be particularly critical in regions where we see increasing rates of transmission," she said.
Distancing just one part of back-to-school plan
Speaking on CBC's Metro Morning on Thursday, the same day Ontario's largest boards headed back to school, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said attempts to distance are being layered with other safety measures, such as masking, ventilation, and screening.
"We just released a communication to [school boards] to reaffirm the importance of not going above the averages, so that we have spacing within our classrooms," he told host Ismaila Alfa.
But Dobrowolski says it's "deceptive" to make that request.
"An average means he's got some classrooms with more and some with less," she said — meaning full-to-the-brim boards will have no choice but to pile in students above that average number.
As for Littlewood, she's telling worried high school teachers that if they feel their class is too crowded, they should report it.
"Keeping everybody in at 100 per cent capacity in rooms that aren't built for the spacing… it's just not possible," she said.
"We're saying to people if you feel you are in an unsafe situation, you need to be reporting it according to the Occupational Health and Safety Act."