Parent groups and education workers are holding a "safe September" protest at Queen's Park today calling on the Ontario government to provide more funding for smaller class sizes for elementary students.
Some parents, educators and health professionals have raised concerns about the province's decision to maintain pre-COVID-19 class sizes. They say many classes in high enrolment boards will be too big to ensure proper physical distancing among students and teachers.
The parent and teacher coalitions set up a mock classroom on the lawn of Queen's Park to demonstrate the close proximity between student desks if the current cohort numbers are not reduced. Based on the current dimensions, the recommended two-metre physical distancing rule would not be achievable in many instances.
"This is our reality. This is what students are coming into," said Jessica Lyons, a parent organizer with the Ontario Parent Action Network, as she walked through the mock classroom to show the limitations. "There is no possibility of recommended spacing in this classroom."
In Ontario, there is no cap for the size of classes in Grades 4 through 8 — only a maximum average of 24.5 across each board. That means it's not uncommon for children in high enrolment school boards to find themselves in classes of 30 or more.
"We know that 35 children in one classroom with poor ventilation is totally unsafe and does not meet the recommendations of SickKids, the recommendations of Toronto Public Health and countless other reputable medical sources," said Lyons.
Medical experts have also recommended proper ventilation in closed spaces to minimize the spread of COVID-19. But many of the schools in Toronto are older with ventilation systems that require upgrading in order to be effective.
"The ventilation system is ancient," said David Stocker, a Grade 7 and 8 teacher with the Toronto District School Board, who attended the demonstration. He is also a parent of three children, two of whom will be going back to school in September.
Luckily, the windows in his classrooms open, Stocker says, but that's not the case for everyone.
"You hear about the classrooms where the windows don't even open. You hear about portables that don't have any sinks. You know all of these issues are gonna play out big time in the next few weeks."
Lyons called the ventilation systems in Toronto school an "increasing issue of concern."
"We need major attention to building repairs, HVAC repairs, window repairs so that they can open and let in some air and increase that ventilation."
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has allotted $30 million for the province's school reopening plan to hire more staff to decrease elementary class sizes whenever possible. Both the premier and the education minister, Stephen Lecce continue to defend the plan, despite repeated pressures to add more funding and adjust class sizes from parents, teachers, and medical experts.
Ford and Lecce have acknowledged that physical distancing won't always be possible. Instead, Ford has recommended parents to opt for online learning if they are concerned.
At Wednesday's press conference, the premier defended the plan again but also teased an upcoming back-to-school announcement.
"It's going to be a positive announcement. It's going to be great for the teachers and the students."
To address the need for smaller class sizes and improve ventilation systems, the parent and teacher coalitions are asking for $3 billion.
"A full-funded plan for a safe back-to-school [return] would be over three billion dollars and this would compute to $8 per day per student," Lyons said, adding the "Ford government has so far allotted 84 cents per day per student."
To make proper spacing between children possible, the groups are also asking for increased cleaning and nursing staff, guaranteed paid sick days for staff and funding to address racism.