This coming Monday was supposed to be back to school day for all but post-secondary school students in southern Ontario, but the rising case numbers have been making both parents and educators thinking twice about going back to in-person classes so soon. On Thursday, Premier Doug Ford publicly agreed that it might be too much of a risk to send thousands of students back to school right now.
“With the public health trends where they are across the province, our priority remains keeping students, teachers, school staff, and all Ontarians safe,” said Ford at today’s announcement. “That’s why we’re extending the remote learning period for students in Southern Ontario and the shutdown period for Northern Ontario […] We have to get the numbers down and today’s measures will help us continue to stop the spread of this deadly virus.”
The plan will see elementary and secondary school students in the seven northern Ontario health units return to in-person class on Monday as originally intended. For the rest of the province, all school students in southern Ontario will now go back to their physical school building on Monday January 25. Originally, elementary students would go back to class on Monday while only secondary students would have to wait an additional two weeks.
“I have and remain firmly committed to getting students back into class as soon as possible – there is nothing more important,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce. “However, the best medical and scientific experts have been clear: while schools have been safe places for kids, the sharp rise in community transmission puts that progress and Ontario families at risk.”
The Government of Ontario has been criticized from all quarters this week about their back to school policy post-Christmas holidays.
“I call on Premier Ford and Minister Lecce to extend elementary school closures to January 23, nd to use this time to reduce class sizes to 15 students per class, expand asymptomatic testing, provide childcare for educators and ensure all schools are equipped with proper ventilation,” said Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner in a statement Thursday morning.
“Parents and students need stability. A week-to-week approach is not helpful, neither is a wait-and-see approach. Ontario families need decisive action and leadership,” Schreiner added.
On Wednesday, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) shared a letter asking public health authorities to step in and demand that the Provincial government delay the plan to return to in-class learning.
“Educators know that in-person learning provides the most effective and equitable learning environment, but unfortunately we are at the height of this pandemic,” said Sam Hammond, the president of the ETFO in a statement on Wednesday. “It makes no sense for the government to send students, teachers and education workers back to school while the province is locked for another two to three weeks.”
At least one public health official was listening, because before the Ontario government released their new plan today, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer posted her own advice to area schools: extend online learning until January 24.
“The importance of in-class education on the overall health, well-being and development of our children remains the foundation of our education system,” said Mercer said in a statement. “However, with a significant rise in cases across our region and evidence of transmission among school-aged children, we must make this difficult decision to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep our region safe.”
With Mercer’s guidance, the Upper Grand District School Board was already moving to delay the return to in-person classes when the Government of Ontario announced their intention to move in that direction. After the provincial announcement, Director of Education Mike Glazier for the Wellington Catholic District School Board issued a letter to parents saying that they will also be waiting to continue in-person learning on January 25.
Although school boards were appreciative of the extra time to see if the number of COVID infections might start coming down, they’re also filled with anger about another last minute education discussion coming from Queen’s Park.
“Once again, families, students, and educators are left scrambling thanks to last-minute announcements by Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce,” said a media release from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF). “Constant uncertainty exacerbates the anxiety many are feeling. This is not leadership for the people; it is an inexcusable abdication of responsibility.”
“Premier Ford and Minister Lecce should engage in genuine consultation with the education community on a plan that includes robust testing, enhanced screening and contact tracing, as well as organizing schools to reduce class sizes, increase physical distancing, and eliminate situations in which teachers are delivering in-class and remote learning simultaneously,” added Liz Stuart, the president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association in her own statement.
Hammond added that schools also need improved ventilation, HEPA filters, and CO2 monitors in every classroom, as well as universal masking and school-based asymptomatic testing.