The Toronto District School Board is looking at the possibility of delaying or staggering the start of the school year as it works to determine whether additional classroom space can be secured for elementary students.
Children in Ontario are currently scheduled to return to the classroom on Sept. 8 but teachers, parents, and school boards have all raised concerns about the province’s back-to-school plan, particularly surrounding elementary school class sizes.
The province's four largest teachers' unions have cautioned that when elementary school students return to the classroom, many schools will not have enough space and resources to properly physically distance children.
While the Ford government's back-to-school plan does mandate cohorting all high school students into groups of 15 and alternating the days they attend school, the provincial government is sending elementary school children back full-time without has decreasing the average size of elementary school classes.
The province has provided school boards across Ontario with an additional $309 million as part of the plan to return students to school after in-class education was suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But critics of the plan have suggested that it is not enough money to provide students and staff with a safe environment.
Facing backlash, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced Friday that the province would allow boards to dip into their reserve funds, allowing them access to a pool of up to $500 million in additional money.
The cash, Lecce said, could be spent on securing additional staff and "alternative locations" to allow for greater physical distancing in elementary classrooms.
The move has been met with heavy criticism from teachers' unions and on Thursday night, Carlene Jackson, the interim director of education for the TDSB, said using the board's $131 million reserve funds would not be "prudent or good financial management."
The money, Jackson said, is already earmarked to support ongoing projects, school budget carryovers, and future benefit liabilities.
Newly elected board Chair Alexander Brown said the TDSB is committed to reopening schools with smaller elementary class sizes but it is not yet clear how the board will be able to do that.
“We want to get those smaller class sizes in place for the beginning of the year,” Brown told CP24 on Friday afternoon.
“The challenge with it is that… if we do that, we are going to have to look at where we put the kids.”
Mayor offers to help find spaces for classrooms
Speaking to CP24 on Friday morning, Mayor John Tory said he has offered to work with the TDSB to find additional classroom spaces.
"I did make the offer early on to the school board, and the minister is well aware of this, that if the city could help through the use of community spaces... that I would be quite happy to entertain those requests.," he said. "As yet, we haven't had any formal requests."
Brown noted that he would like to see those talks with the mayor and city staff continue.
“A couple of weeks ago, the former chair of the board... discussed this with the mayor and our director and they were willing to move forward in any way possible, finding those spaces,” Brown said.
“I'm not sure where that is now.... we are hopeful that we will regroup with the mayor and the city and figure out where those spaces would be.”
He said possible locations for additional classrooms include community centres and libraries.
He noted that if the board decides to use the reserve funds for additional spaces outside schools, it will take time to find and secure the locations.
“I don't know if that means a full week that we are going to be delaying it or if we are going to do the staggered re-entry,” he said.
Lecce has said the province supports the idea of staggering the start of the school year but does not want to see an outright delay.
"If school boards want to stagger the opening – to mitigate having a mass volume of students entering schools on the first day that seems prudent,” Lecce told CP24 on Friday morning.
“But parents really want to get their kids back in to class. There's an overwhelming medical and mental health and developmental imperative that parents get their kids back in school.”
He later said he is working with boards to ensure they are comfortable with the timeline.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said allowing staggered start times for the span of one week would do very little to assuage concerns with the Ford government's overall plan.
“Staggering arrival days means the Ford government needs to step up with child care and paid-leave options for parents urgently. And, ultimately, sending kids back into crowded classes with no way to physically distance is no more acceptable on Friday than it is on Monday."