Class sizes unlikely to shrink, despite fewer pupils in schools

By Sue Tiffin

Staff reporter

Trillium Lakelands District School Board has “collapsed” some classrooms, combining classrooms – including two different grades – to ensure required class size averages are met to receive government funding.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, has been speaking to media about the scenario playing out at public schools across the province.

“We are aware of situations in the province where classes are being collapsed,” she told The Canadian Press. “If they’re being collapsed it is because of a need to fulfill ministry directives and parents should check with their school boards if they have concerns about their own children’s class size.”

While some local parents were under the impression that lower student numbers at school, caused by 15 per cent of students across the TLDSB opting to study at home, would result in fewer students in the classroom, Abraham told The Canadian Press last week that class sizes would remain the same because of school boards needing to adhere to funding agreements with the Ontario government.

“I understand why people are kind of surprised to be hearing about this,” she said. “I get why parents and teachers alike are anxious about not knowing for sure what’s going to happen. It is very challenging and this is what keeps trustees and directors of education and superintendents and principals up at night.”

Collapsed and combined classes have become a contentious point of conversation, with NDP education critic Marit Stiles speaking out about the practice.

“I feel bad for families who thought maybe if they kept their kids home that would make it easier for others to have smaller class sizes because that has never been part of the plan,” she said.

Premier Doug Ford said last week that boards could be collapsing classes, but that he was not aware of it happening.  

TLDSB spokesperson Sinead Fegan said classrooms have been consolidated to be within the required class size averages.

“Yes, classes have been consolidated to be within the required averages,” Fegan told the Echo. “Government funding to school boards is based on schools being staffed to the required averages, which are junior kindergarten and senior kindergarten, 26, primary 20, junior/intermediate, 24.4. There are also provisions within the regulations, which permit exceeding these numbers in 10 per cent of classes across the board.”

She added: “This is happening because some parents have selected to register their students for at home learning, so classes are based off of enrolment numbers of students who have identified that they are returning to school. We are unable to have classes run that do not fit within the guidelines, as we are not funded by the Ministry of Education for small classes.”

Split grade classes, in which typically two grades combine with one teacher, are not uncommon. Last year at Archie Stouffer Elementary School, outside of junior/senior kindergarten classes, there were five split grade classrooms. This year, there are nine, according to a post on ASES social media: a K/1 class, a 1/2 class, a 2/3 class, a 4/5 class, two 5/6 classes, a 6/7 class and two 7/8 classes.

“In some cases split grade classes exist,” said Fegan. “Many split grade classes existed prior to COVID-19, so this is a typical practice to blend grades to comply with class size requirements.”
She added: “It is likely that some classrooms in our schools are empty, and in some classes split grade classes do exist.”

Fegan said as of Sept. 4, TLDSB did not currently have the number for class sizes – lowest number of students in a class or highest number – “as it is changing on a daily basis, as some families change their learning choice.” She noted however that TLDSB is adhering to their collective agreements and the class size guidelines as provided by the Ministry of Education.

“Our in-school class size averages are actually lower than before COVID,” she said.

In regards to parent expectations that classrooms should have 15 per cent fewer students as a result of 15 per cent of TLDSB students not attending class in person, she said: “This is incorrect. While schools may have an overall reduction in students attending class, reorganization keeps the board in compliance with the class size averages set out in the regulations.”

According to TLDSB, local teachers have not lost jobs, another concern of local parents.

“No teachers have lost jobs, and in fact, multiple additional positions have been posted across the system,” said Fegan. “The first priority to move staff to the Learn @ Home [virtual] school was to ensure staff with medical accommodations were able to work in this environment. Following the placement of accommodated staff, we followed our process for dealing with staff surplus to a building, which is first to ask for volunteers to work in the Learn @ Home school, and then to transfer staff with the lowest seniority in the school.”

Staggered starts will take place at elementary schools across the county this week, with high school students returning next week. Students enrolled in virtual school are expected to hear more details about a start that has previously been announced as being Sept. 18.