As students at Toronto elementary schools return to the classroom today for the first time since March, an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the province has prompted some concerned parents to switch to virtual learning at the last minute, TDSB Chair Alexander Brown said Tuesday.
On Monday, the TDSB confirmed that thousands of elementary students made the switch from in-person learning to virtual instruction just days before classes were set to begin, forcing the school board to delay the start of its virtual program to Sept. 22.
The number of students making the switch to online classes, Brown said, is continuing to grow as COVID-19 cases rise in Ontario.
"As the numbers start to creep up, I guess we all start to worry more. I guess this is one of the reasons we saw a shift back to virtual. Maybe some parents were fearful and they want to wait and see where we are in a week or two and I get that," Brown said on Tuesday morning.
"As the numbers go up, this is where the province needs to step in and make sure that we can ensure that our schools remain safe."
Ontario reported a spike in new COVID-19 infections on Monday, with 313 new cases confirmed over a 24-hour period.
That number dipped down to 251 today but is still considerably higher than the daily cases reported just last week.
The TDSB said 66,000 students were initially enrolled in virtual school, a number that has ballooned to more than 72,000 since last Friday.
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird confirmed that an additional 1,500 students have switched to virtual learning in the past 24 hours and officials are still trying to work out the logistics.
“It is just the staffing around trying to plan for more than 73,000 kids, which would really equate to the total enrolment of most Ontario school boards,” Bird said. “It really is massive.”
The TDSB said an additional 200 teachers are needed to accommodate the recent increase in virtual enrolment.
Carlene Jackson, the interim director of education for Canada’s largest school board, said she expects the number of students switching to online learning will continue to rise before today’s 4 p.m. deadline.
After today, anyone who wishes to change to either in-person instruction or virtual learning must wait until after Thanksgiving.
“We can't do it at any given point throughout the year because it does mean reorganizing schedules,” she said.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said school boards have found themselves in a "pretty chaotic" situation as they attempt to roll out online and in-class instruction.
She added that testing backlogs continue to be a problem in the province, a situation she said will only get worse as students go back to school.
"This is what I think is frightening for parents and educators and bus drivers and others because they are worried," Horwath said on Tuesday.
"They are worried about their ability to get tested and I think that is what is keeping parents now at the last minute, from sending their kids to school and deciding that they are going to go online instead."
According to today's epidemiological summary, while more than 27,000 tests were processed over the past 24 hours, there are currently about 24,000 specimens still under investigation.
Long lineups were seen outside testing centres across Toronto today and Mayor John Tory has called for assessment centre hours to be extended following reports of people being turned away.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the provincial government is looking at a number of ways to increase capacity, including testing at pharmacies.
TDSB working to lower class sizes to 'targeted caps'
The TDSB has promised to keep class sizes for in-person learning capped at 26 for students in junior and senior kindergarten, 20 for students in grades one through three, and 27 for students in grades four through eight. At schools in neighbourhoods with higher rates of COVID-19 infection, class sizes for students in grades four to eight are supposed to be capped at 20.
Bird said some schools are still working to bring down class sizes to the targeted caps.
“When it comes to larger class sizes, we are going to be putting in resources to make sure those are lowered back down,” he told CP24 on Tuesday.
“We are making sure teachers are assigned so we can lower those class sizes back down to where our targeted caps are to make sure that we are not seeing 34, 35. That is not acceptable to us.”
Many teachers in the province have been critical of the Ford government’s decision not to decrease the size of elementary school classes to a level that would allow for appropriate physical distancing.
Some have said that providing even the epidemiologically-recommended minimum of one-metre of distancing between desks in some classrooms would be challenging if not impossible.
“It’s disappointing that the Ford government has wasted so much time, staging unrealistic photo ops at schools and launching ads to defend their bargain basement scheme,” Marit Stiles, Ontario NDP Education critic said in a written statement released Tuesday.
“After months of learning from home, students and educators are losing even more precious time because the government wouldn’t budge on class numbers, and cases among students and staff are already making their way into schools.”
Infection control protocols have been put in place at schools in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading and at the TDSB, students in all grades are required to wear masks.
High school students at the TDSB, who will be attending in-person instruction on alternating days, will return to the classroom on Thursday.