TORONTO — Ontario students will likely return to school in September with a mix of in-class and remote learning, the government announced Friday, though boards will develop various scenarios, depending on how COVID-19 is spreading at that point.
Premier Doug Ford said there won't be a one-size-fits-all approach in schools, but parents provincewide will have the option of sending their children back to class or keeping them learning remotely.
"This virus remains a threat and the health and safety of our children will always remain top of mind," Ford said.
"If you don't feel comfortable, if you're worried about your child returning to school, we'll keep at-home learning available for your child."
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said boards are being asked to prepare plans for three scenarios: regular in-class instruction with public health protocols, fully remote learning, and a plan that blends the two approaches. Boards may have to move between the three models throughout the year.
Lecce said he expects all students to start September with the blended model, which will see no more than 15 students in class, attending on alternating days or weeks. Public health units will be asked to give guidance in early August on what the appropriate model is for September.
Students in class will interact only with their classmates and a single teacher, which will keep close contact to a minimum while still allowing students to play with each other, Lecce said.
Ontario's school reopening document says changes would need to be made to how subjects with rotating teachers — such as French, art and music — are taught. If a class size is so large that it couldn't be split into alternate days with a maximum of 15 students, boards could form additional classes led by specialist teachers, the document says.
When not in class, students would be assigned work to do and could participate in virtual learning with classmates in school for one period, the document says. Students should eat lunch in their own classrooms, with desks spaced out.
That blended model will be evaluated after September, and if public health trends are heading in the right direction, boards could move closer to more conventional schooling.
Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario president Sam Hammond said the province's approach, which will shrink class sizes, is certain to increase the need for more educators.
But the government has not promised enough funding to pay for that, he added.
"If I'm a teacher and I have 30 students and on those two alternating days only 20 are there, who's providing that online learning for the other 10 students?" he said.
"I hope it's not going to be expected that our members will be providing that at any time, day or night."
NDP critic Marit Stiles said there are too few details and too many holes in the government's plan.
"Many parents can't choose to stay home and teach their kids if they don't like the reopening plan, and it's totally unrealistic to add zero new teachers and expect teachers to juggle students who are rotating between classrooms and emergency distance learning," she said in a statement.
Michele Costa, whose son will start Grade 2 this fall, said she worries that the province's plan could create child care challenges.
"Realistically, I think for me it would probably just mean staying home and I think that's probably how it's going to be for a lot of parents, and probably mostly mothers," she said. "Finding rotating child care is going to be difficult."
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation said the government announcement falls far short of a coherent strategy.
"It's not a plan, it really doesn't lay any of the groundwork that's required," Harvey Bischof said. "They can't simply abdicate their responsibility to school boards. There will be local adaptations that are required, but they need to provide some central direction about minimal expectations."
Schools across the province have been closed since March 13, when the government moved to shut down much of Ontario to slow the spread of COVID-19.
A report released this week by medical experts from Toronto's SickKids Hospital said children are not the super-spreaders of COVID-19 that experts initially believed they would be.
Guidelines on reopening provided by those experts to the province include extra hand hygiene, environmental cleaning and ventilation, and taking classes outdoors when possible — but not requiring masks for kids or discouraging close play.
The government's guidance includes hand-washing upon entering the school and at regular intervals during the day, possibly with scheduled hand hygiene breaks.
The Ontario Public School Boards' Association generally lauded the plan and the flexibility for local circumstances, but said it wants an "ongoing dialogue" with the government about additional funding that may be needed to adapt to the pandemic.
Lecce announced the annual school board funding amounts Friday, which include an overall increase of $250 per student — in contrast to a decline in per-pupil funding last year.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 178 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and 11 more deaths. That brought the province to a total of 33,095 cases.
More remaining regions of Ontario also moved into the second stage of the province's reopening plan Friday, including parts of the Greater Toronto Area.
The second stage of reopening includes restaurant patios, hair salons and swimming pools.
— With files from Shawn Jeffords
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2020.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press