Province announces safe return to school but some groups unsure about class resumption

The HPEDSB Education Centre. (Desirée Decoste/Gazette Staff)




The saying “See you in September” is no longer wishful thinking for students, parents and education workers in Prince Edward County.

The Ontario government announced Thursday the safe reopening of schools for in-class instruction to commence early next month. According to a Ministry of Education announcement, the province has a plan that prioritizes the health and safety of students and staff and provides school boards with unprecedented resources and flexibility, while accommodating regional differences in trends of key public health indicators. 

This plan was developed in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, the COVID-19 Command Table and paediatric experts.

In response to Thursday’s announcement by the province, the of Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board (HPEDSB) added in a follow up announcement their priority is the safety and well-being of students, families and staff, particularly as families and staff prepare for the return to school in September. 

Hastings Prince Edward Public Health (HPEPH) and KFL&A Public Health have been working together with local school boards throughout the summer to plan enhanced processes and safety measures to support various return to school options. Details about these processes are being finalized in order to align with the recent provincial announcement and additional information will be shared with parents, students, and staff in the coming weeks to help everyone prepare for changes in the school environment.

“We appreciate the direction from the Ministry of Education about reopening schools in September,” said Sean Monteith, Director of Education for HPEDSB. “Now that we have this information, we can finalize plans for all HPEDSB schools. We know students, parents/guardians and staff may be feeling anxious during these uncertain times, but know we’re doing our best to be nimble in order to adjust to this dynamic situation and commit to providing updates as timely as possible.”

With an expected start date of September 3, 2020  for all students, HPEDSB knows the first day back of school will be filled with a combination of excitement and anxiety due to COVID-19 combined with the length of time students have been away from school.

“As the local risk of COVID- 19 continues to evolve, we are working diligently to help local children, youth and staff return to school safely and access the educational, social, and developmental benefits of the school environment,” said Dr. Alexa Caturay, Acting Medical Officer of Health at HPEPH. “While it’s possible infections may occur in the school environment despite enhanced public health measures, we have processes in place to identify cases quickly and reduce potential exposure to others. It’s also important to remember the majority of COVID-19 infections among children, youth, and individuals without underlying health concerns are mild and can be managed at home with a full recovery”.

EDUCATION TALK- Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board Director of Education Sean Monteith. (Sarah Williams/Gazette Staff)

Details on the safe restart of the 2020-2021 school year were provided Thursday by Premier Doug Ford, Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education, and Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health.

Some highlights from the Ministry of Education Reopening Plan are as follows:

Elementary schools

  • Elementary schools will reopen with conventional in-person delivery of teaching and instruction, with enhanced health and safety protocols
  • Elementary school students in Kindergarten to Grade 8 will attend school five days per week, with 300 minutes of instruction per day, remaining in one cohort (learning group) for the full day, including recess and lunch
  • Cohorted classes will stay together and with one teacher, where possible. Students can expect to see changes in the timing of recesses, lunches, and bathroom breaks as they are staggered to support cohorting
  • Specialized teachers, like French teachers, will still be able to go into classrooms to provide the full breadth of programming for students
  • Students will also be able to leave their classrooms to receive additional supports but direct and indirect contacts in schools for students should be limited to approximately 50
  • School boards will provide the full range of elementary curriculum, including the new Grades 1-8 Mathematics curriculum.

Secondary schools

  • All school boards are encouraged to adopt timetabling methods that emphasize cohorting (learning group) of students as much as possible, to limit the number of student-to- student contacts
  • In order to reduce risk of transmission and to support contact tracing, school boards are to develop timetables that over a 1 to 2-week period:
    • limit indirect and direct student contacts to approximately 100 students in the school; and
    • are encouraged to keep secondary school students in a maximum of two in- person class cohorts
  • Secondary schools in non-designated school boards, such as HPEDSB, will be permitted to open with conventional delivery, with enhanced health and safety protocols

Multiple strategies to support healthy and safe environments for students and staff

  • Self screening
  • Adapted school environments with 1 meter distancing required at all sites
  • Hand hygiene
  • Masking
    • Students in Grades 4 to 12 will be required to wear non-medical or cloth masks while in school
    • Students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 will be encouraged but not required to wear masks in common spaces
    • Medical masks will be provided for teachers and all school staff
    • Schools boards are able to establish reasonable exceptions
  • Cohorting
  • Distancing
  • Limiting visitors in schools
  • Pre-registration

Support for families

  • Parents will make decisions regarding in-person attendance for their children for this school year and will have the option of remote (online) learning
  • Students with a high level of special education needs who are unable to study remotely will be permitted daily attendance and instruction

School health monitoring system

  • A new school health monitoring system will be established through a partnership between the ministries of Health and Education, school boards and local public health to monitor and respond to reports of COVID-19 symptoms. Students or staff who develop COVID-19 symptoms will immediately be separated from others
  • Staff and parents/guardians will be directed to consult their health provider and will be provided with COVID-19 testing locations. Persons who test positive may not return to school until they are cleared by public health. Persons who test negative can return once they are symptom-free for 24 hours
  • Schools will immediately report any suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19
  • Schools will ensure records of classes, transported students and visitors are maintained and readily available to be provided to public health for contact tracing
  • School staff will receive training on required processes and procedures
  • The ministries of Education and Health are working together to provide testing capacity to keep schools safe and treat any affected student or teacher/staff member.

“It’s been hard on families to balance work and child care, while kids have been separated from friends and other kids their own age,” Premier Ford said. “We want to get our kids back to school, but it has to be done safely. That’s why we’ve worked with our public health experts, Ontario Health and the medical experts at SickKids to develop a plan that ensures students can return to the classroom five days a week in a way that protects the health and safety of our children, teachers, and school staff.”

Based on the best medical advice available, the province is implementing additional public health protocols to keep students and staff safe when they return to school in September. To support the implementation of these protocols, the government is providing over $300 million in targeted, immediate, and evidence-informed investments, including:

  • $60 million in procurement of medical and cloth masks for students and staff, with direction to boards to ensure that students who cannot afford a mask are provided one;
  • $30 million for teacher staffing to support supervision, keeping classes small and other safety related measures;
  • $50 million to hire up to 500 additional school-focused nurses in public health units to provide rapid-response support to schools and boards in facilitating public health and preventative measures, including screening, testing, tracing and mitigation strategies;
  • Over $23 million to provide testing capacity to help keep schools safe;
  •  $75 million in funding to hire over 900 additional custodians and purchase cleaning supplies for schools;
  • $40 million to clean school buses, to ensure that students are in a thoroughly cleaned transportation environment;
  • $10 million for health and safety training for occasional teachers, who have historically not been covered by professional development that is offered to permanent teachers;
  • $10 million to support special needs students in the classroom; and
  • $10 million to support student mental health.

This funding is in addition to a $25 million investment in mental health and technology, which will see an additional $10 million dedicated to mental health staff, resources, and programs, as well as $15 million in technology funding to support the procurement of over 35,000 devices for Ontario’s students to support their synchronous learning in-school and beyond.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford. (Jason Parks/Gazette file photo)

“This plan reflects the best medical and scientific advice with a single aim: to keep your child safe,” Minister Lecce added. “While this plan will continue to evolve to respond to the changing threat of COVID-19, we will remain constant and consistent in investing in the resources, staffing, and cleaning supports, and strict health and safety protocols to keep our communities and our classrooms safe.”

But Teacher union leaders say the funding falls well short of what’s actually needed to protect children and members in the classroom this fall.

They say the Ford government is jeopardizing the safety of students, educators and all Ontarians by severely underfunding a safe return to school this September said Ontario’s four major education unions representing the province’s elementary and secondary teachers and education workers.

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 200,000 teachers and education workers who are expected to return to school under the government’s plan and in a joint statement, Education Union leaders decried the return-to-school plan.

“This plan and the funding to support it falls far short of the $3 billion that has been estimated for a safe and healthy return to school,” said AEFO President Rémi Sabourin. “More funds are needed for enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of schools, additional custodial staff, masks and personal protective equipment, health and safety training for staff and additional educators.”

“While the announcement of new funding is welcome, it’s quite clear that the Ford government isn’t willing to pay the full cost of ensuring the safety of students and educators in September,” stated ETFO President Sam Hammond. “The Premier promised Ontarians that he ‘will spare no expense’ to keep people safe, yet he and Education Minister Stephen Lecce are betraying that promise to students, educators, parents and communities with this ill-prepared plan.”

“Educators want to be back with their students, but want to do so safely,” added OECTA President Liz Stuart. “The Ford model does not provide for the safe physical distancing that is expected in the rest of the province, and that health experts around the world have recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It also does not provide the necessary additional resources to support distance learning for those families who elect to keep their children home, or to support students in schools who have unique learning needs. Ontario’s recovery depends on a safe return to school, and this plan does not provide it.”

“This plan is an insult to every student, every parent and every educator in the province of Ontario,” said OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof. “The Ford government has had four months to come up with a serious strategy – four months to consult, to plan, and to allocate appropriate resources to ensure a safe return to school in September. It’s clear from today’s announcement that they have squandered that time. In the midst of a global pandemic, Ontario deserves more than yet another half-baked scheme from Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce.”

The parent-led advocacy group Ontario Parents for Public Education have called on the province to look at other jurisdictions including those abroad (Finland, Switzerland, Denmark) and at home (British Columbia) where smaller class sizes have been utilized to further ensure staff and student safety and, anecdotally, a number of local parents have expressed their trepidation and doubt their children will return to school next month.

The Ministry of Education said they continue working closely with public health and school boards to monitor and report on the health status of school communities, which is part of the government’s outbreak management plan. This plan, which was developed with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of the Solicitor General and the Ministry of Health, outlines clear protocols and authorities of the multiple agencies and organizations involved in the public health landscape. In the event of positive cases of COVID-19 among students, parents, teachers, or other staff, these protocols will enable immediate action by health and education sector officials to identify, track, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the education system. Every school board will have communication protocols in place to keep families informed.

“Based on the current data, we are seeing overall instances of COVID-19 declining in Ontario,” said Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health. “When considering the health of the whole child, and as long as this trend continues, we believe with the appropriate measures and strategies in place to handle potential outbreaks and prevent spread, schools are expected to be a safe place for Ontario’s students and staff who attend in person. We will continue to closely monitor the situation to ensure the safety of students and staff and will be prepared to transition to alternative options should circumstances change.”

“We realize that the decision to send children to school is an incredibly difficult one,” added Monteith. “To prepare our schools to be as best and responsive as possible, we will be contacting families in the days ahead to get an idea of parent intentions.”