Principals, school boards question Ontario's plan to host outdoor graduations for all

·4 min read

Ontario educators are raising questions about the feasibility of Premier Doug Ford's plan to have schools host outdoor "graduation" ceremonies for all students in a matter of weeks.

Several school boards said they need more information from the province before they can commit to hosting such events, while a group representing principals in the province called the idea "impractical and unrealistic."

"We are being asked to revert and pivot again, to cancel graduation plans already in place and organize outdoor events amid social distancing restrictions," the Ontario Principals' Council said in a statement. "...It is unrealistic and disrespectful to Ontario educators to expect such a considerable shift in planning at this point in the school year."

Schools have been planning virtual ceremonies for weeks or months, said Ann Pace, head of the council and a high school principal north of Toronto, and there's no time or money to pivot to an outdoor in-person gathering.

And she said that even going classroom-by-classroom would bring a dangerous number of people together, noting that a homeroom class of 30 kids, plus two guests each, would lead to a gathering of 90.

"And then we also have to consider how is that done in a school that might have 15 homerooms?" she said. "How many days would that take? And think about the sanitizing that would need to be done in between (ceremonies.)"

Ford encouraged schools to hold outdoor grad ceremonies for all grades -- not just grades 8 and 12 -- as he announced that classes would not resume in person until September due to COVID-19.

"We'll be working with school boards and health officials to make sure we can have outdoor graduation ceremonies for all students in all grades this summer," he said during Wednesday's announcement.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province is not mandating such events.

"While school boards will ultimately make this decision in consultation with local public health, our government is strongly encouraging and enabling safe outdoor and in-person graduations to celebrate Ontario student achievement," Caitlin Clark said in an email.

The province's largest school board, for one, said it was still too soon to say whether such events would be possible.

"We have just learned this information today and are now awaiting further information ... prior to making any decision on these events," the Toronto District School Board said in a memo to parents on Wednesday.

Emma Frasheri, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student in Toronto, said she didn't find the idea of an outdoor graduation ceremony comforting.

"Our whole Grade 12 year was stripped from us. And at least my school they've said we're only doing a virtual graduation and prom," she said. "So now that the government is saying, 'Oh, yeah, we can do it outdoors now,' it seems like too little, too late."

The association representing Ontario's public school boards also expressed hesitation about the plan, saying it's "concerned about the apparent contradiction between the decision to close schools and the directive from the premier to hold in-person graduations."

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government will be in touch with boards to figure out logistics.

"It's going to be worked out obviously with the school boards, with Minister Lecce and with the local public health officers to make sure that students will be physically distanced and have masks and so on, so that it will be done following all the necessary public health measures," she told reporters at Queen's Park on Thursday.

But some opposition politicians said the province's graduation idea was half-baked.

Liberal house leader John Fraser said the plan amounted to: "Hey, folks, we can all have parties."

"It's kind of a little embarrassing that he didn't even actually start the plan, talk to the stakeholders about that, talk to principals," Fraser said. "For heaven's sakes, the principals had to come out and say, 'Hey, this isn't right.' You don't usually get principals saying that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2021.

-with a file from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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