The Toronto District School Board is seeking to reassure parents, students, teachers and other workers that it's doing everything possible to ensure the health and safety of all school community members when schools open next month.
TDSB staff hosted a webinar Thursday evening to share steps being taken to prepare schools for safe re-opening and answer questions from concerned parents, teachers and others.
"TDSB staff have been working tirelessly on plans informed by the Ministry of Education, Toronto Public Health, staff and families to ensure that TDSB schools open safely in September," said Rachel Chernos Lin, trustee for Don Valley West, Ward 11.
The webinar — jointly hosted with the Parent and Community Engagement Office and the Parent Involvement Advisory Committee — had more than 5,000 attendees and saw a myriad of questions being put to the TDSB staff.
- Has there been training for educators over the summer to better equip them to handle remote learning
- Will the TDSB prioritize outdoor education options (as long as weather permits)?
- If there is a positive case in a school, will all the students' parents be informed?
- If a student is learning remotely, will they still be associated with an in-class cohort and follow the same curriculum or a different one?
- Has there been thought given to using different spaces within schools as classrooms ahead of renting out other space? (e.g. gym, library or computer labs if disused, staff room)
The webinar ran for two hours but the time was still not enough to answers all of the questions.
The webinar was held as tensions escalated between the Ontario government and teachers' unions and after the province announced it would free up money to allow boards to address pandemic safety concerns ahead of schools reopening.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday that school boards will be allowed to access $500 million of their own reserve funds to achieve physical distancing in classrooms.
The government will also spend $50 million to update school ventilation systems, and another $18 million to hire principals and support staff to administer online learning.
Lecce stressed that the province is making moves to provide more support and flexibility to school boards and keep kids safe.
"We face a very difficult time, adversity in our economy and our society, and in the health of our children," he said. "Now is the time to put those tax dollars, respectfully, to work."
TDSB staff will now review Lecce's announcement
Chernos Lin said staff will now review Lecce's announcement to make the necessary adjustments to plans as directed by the ministry.
"Many of these changes are no doubt as a result of the advocacy of parents like you from across Toronto and Ontario," she said.
More analysis is required and new information will be shared as soon as possible [but] what we do know is that the ministry announced that school boards could use funding from their reserve funds to help supplement COVID-related costs."
According to Chernos Lin, while TDSB staff are already looking at what reserves could be used without putting the board at future financial risks, with the ability to access the additional funds, staff are now looking at how to use the money to lower class sizes in elementary schools.
"With smaller class sizes, we would also require additional space for classes at a number of our schools," she said.
"There may not be sufficient capacity to transport all students if several new locations are added. At a minimum there will be a delay in establishing new route plans to these additional sites so transportation could be delayed for the first month of school for these sites."
Patrick Mohammed, senior manager public health and safety at the TDSB, said the board will implement public health measures as directed by Toronto Public Health and other public health agencies.
"Our staff will be looking at setting up the schools slightly differently, looking at visual queues to remind staff and students about the need to physically distance, regular hand hygiene and sanitizing," Mohammed said.
"We will be looking at personal protective equipment for staff and the wearing of face masks or non-medical masks for students."
Education unions want meeting to discuss back-to-school plan
On Thursday Ontario's four major education unions said the government's Guide to Re-Opening Ontario's Schools fails to meet the requirements set out in the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The unions have requested an immediate meeting with the Minister of Labour and representatives from the Ministry of Education to discuss the back-to-school plan.
The four unions — the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO); the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO); the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA); and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) — represent more than 190,000 teachers and education workers who are expected to return to school in September under the government's plan.
"The Guide does not take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect teachers and education workers as is required by Section 25(2)(h) of the Act," they wrote in a letter requesting the meeting.
The unions contend that there is an absence of scientific consensus or certainty on significant aspects of COVID-19 — noting that Ontario is obliged under the Act to follow the precautionary principle and implement all reasonable measures necessary to reduce the risks that COVID-19 poses to health and safety.
"By reopening schools without measures to appropriately address critical issues, the Ministry of Education has placed the health and safety of educators, their students and the entire school community in significant and imminent danger," the unions said.
The unions are requesting that a meeting with government officials, representatives of public, Catholic, French school board associations and the Ministry of Labour's health and safety inspectorate be held no later than Friday, Aug. 21.