By Sue Tiffin
When the school bell rings in September students in Haliburton County will be able to head back full time.
After weeks of parents fretting going over three options the provincial government had recommended for public schools – full-time learning distance learning or a hybrid of the two – on July 30 the province announced back-to-school plans for this September.
Under the plan local schools would join other public schools in the province in reopening Sept. 8 and elementary and high school students in Haliburton County can attend five days a week.
“Elementary schools (kindergarten to Grade 8) will reopen province-wide with in-class instruction five days a week” reads a press release from the provincial government. “Secondary schools with lower risk will reopen with a normal daily schedule five days a week while most secondary schools will start the school year in an adapted model of part-time attendance with class cohorts of up to 15 students alternating between attending in-person and online. Students from Grade 4 to 12 and school staff will be required to wear masks.” Masks for students in younger grades will be optional.
“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” said Premier Doug Ford in the press release. “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.”
According to the press release “Parents will continue to have the option to enroll their children in remote delivery which respects their fundamental role in making the final determination of whether they feel safe with their children returning to school.”
The provincial government also announced it will spend $300 million on additional public health protocols 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 35000 devices for Ontario’s students to support their synchronous learning in-school and beyond” reads the press release.
Ford was joined by Christine Elliott deputy premier and minister of health; Stephen Lecce minister of education; and Dr. Barbara Yaffe associate chief medical officer of health for the announcement.
“This plan reflects the best medical and scientific advice with a single aim: to keep your child safe” said Lecce in the press release. “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.”
Trillium Lakelands District School Board said after the announcement that “TLDSB senior administrators will be reviewing the details of the ministry’s directive over the next several days and including any additional protocols into our planning.”
TLDSB said all students must re-register for school and will receive an email with a link to a form asking to pre-register for in-person and at-home learning at which point a “program will be developed with enhanced public health protocols in place.” Any changes from at-school or at-home learning choices will take time to implement once the school year has begun.
Parents will also have to register for board-provided transportation and those who opt out will not be able to opt back in until the second semester in February.
“TLDSB schools will be ready to welcome students on September 8” reads the board’s return to school webpage. “Administrators have been preparing for a return to school for several weeks with the health and well-being of our students as our main priority.”
“At this point in time there are still many items to consider as we finalize our plans” reads the board website. “We are working with our local public health units to review our plans to ensure we have included the most current safe practices during a pandemic.”
Each family will receive a link to a student/family re-entry guidebook in August and a printed copy of the guidebook in September which will provide details about returning to school during a pandemic.
“Families will need to be prepared for a change in the current plan from the Ministry of Education and public health based on any emerging COVID-19 pandemic issues” reads the TLDSB site.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario which represents 83000 elementary public school teachers occasional teachers and education professionals responded to the announcement later that afternoon noting that “while educators want to be back with their students this fall the government’s plan for a return to school falls far sort of ensuring the safety of public elementary students and educators.”
“Schools are supposed to be safe places for children. This plan does not adequately address the safety of students or staff” said Sam Hammond president of ETFO. “Restaurants grocery stores and gyms will have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools given the insufficient funding allocated in this plan … The successful advocacy and organizing of parents educators and others has forced the government to add some additional investment to the reopening of schools in September. While it’s a step in the right direction the funding to support the plan falls far short of what schools need to keep students and educators safe in September.”
ETFO’s press release said the teachers’ union is concerned the government is not reducing elementary class sizes to allow for two-metre physical distancing nor requiring students in kindergarten to Grade 3 to wear masks.
“Two-metre physical distancing and mask wearing have been required for indoor activities across the province. COVID-19 does not distinguish between a grocery store and a classroom between a coffee shop or school hallways” reads the press release. “Kindergarten to Grade 3 students are more active and have less self-regulation and this will make physical distancing more difficult. That’s why smaller classes and mask requirements for all students are necessary to ensure the safety and health of everyone in elementary schools.”
The government’s announcement came on the second consecutive day of the province reporting fewer than 100 new cases of COVID-19.
“Thank you Ontario” tweeted Lecce just before the announcement. “Because of our collective vigilance and sacrifice to #StopTheSpread students can safely return to school this September. Now more than ever let’s not let our guard down!”
“Based on the current data we are seeing that overall instances of COVID-19 are 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 that 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.”
The government had previously asked school boards to develop plans that are due to the Ministry of Education by Aug. 4. The plans were to address three models: conventional delivery adapted instruction and remote instruction with synchronous learning.
“As the public health situation unfolds through the course of the school year boards will continue to rely on these three models to respond nimbly and pragmatically to local public health dynamics” reads the press release.
The ministry’s Learn at Home program launched March 20 after March Break when students did not return to school due to provincial emergency shelter in place orders and school closures.
Prior to the announcement the Trillium Lakelands District School Board shared plans for a special meeting of the board scheduled for Aug. 4 at 2 p.m. following the in-camera session. The meeting can be watched at the board’s website www.tldsb.ca.
Also on July 30 the province announced plans to “gradually and safely reopen child care for working parents” according to a press release noting a reopening to full capacity being possible on Sept. 1.
“We are helping more moms and dads return to work as Ontario’s economy gets back on track” said Lecce in a tweet on July 30. “Starting Sept. 1 child care centres and EarlyON Child and Family Centres can open at full capacity while maintaining strict & enhanced health and safety protocols.”
The government said safety procedures put in place as part of the reopening plan were still in effect “and in some instances strengthened to protect children staff and families” including
Requiring all child care staff to wear masks at all times effective Sept. 1; Ensuring frequent cleaning of child care centres; Screening of children and staff before entering a childcare facility;
Maintaining attendance records for rigorous contact tracing and coordination with local public health authorities; Ensuring frequent hand washing and proper hand hygiene for children and staff; and Establishing clear and rigid case management protocols in the event a staff member or child becomes ill or tests positive for COVID-19.
According to a press release the province will also be providing additional funding with support from the federal government through the Safe Restart Agreement to help child care providers and centres purchase cleaning supplies PPE and support staffing needs related to new procedures.
Phase 3 of the province’s reopening plan began July 17 and July 24 for most health unit jurisdictions in Ontario with Toronto and Peel regions entering the stage July 31. Windsor-Essex is the only region in the province still in Phase 2. Phase 3 allows for indoor dining at restaurants the reopening of movie theatres playgrounds and live theatre shows and larger gatherings of people both outdoors and indoors with physical distancing measures still in place.
As of July 31 the province has reported 39075 positive COVID-19 cases with 34906 of those cases resolved. A total of 2772 deaths have been reported 1793 of those deaths reported for residents in long-term care homes and eight being health-care workers in long-term care homes. Just more than 11000 of the cases have been reported in both the 20 to 39 age demographic and 40 to 59 age demographic just more than 7000 cases have been reported in the 60 to 79 age demographic just more than 6000 in the 80 and over age demographic and 2205 cases have been reported in the 19 and under age demographic.
In Haliburton County 13 cases of COVID-19 have been reported since March with 12 cases resolved as of press time.