Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the provincial government is permitting  school boards to dip into their reserve funds, allowing them access to some $500 million to be spent on additional staff and space to allow for greater social distancing in elementary classrooms. However, the province is not mandating smaller class sizes.

The Ontario government says the move is part of several changes it is making to “enhance” its back-to-school plan for students following a chorus of criticism from school boards, teacher unions and families.

While the province has said high school classes will be divided into cohorts of 15, with students attending in-person every other day, the current provincial plan mandates no changes to class sizes in elementary schools (grades 1-8), where students will be expected to attend every day.

Lecce said Thursday that the reserve funds will allow boards to secure "alternative locations" for classrooms outside of school buildings if they cannot find any new space.

However the plan leaves it up to individual boards to decide whether to dip into reserves to further distance kids. Lecce said the province will spend $11 million to “top up” four school boards in the province that have no reserve funds.

The province will also increase funding for school maintenance by $50 million to upgrade airflow and HVAC systems in schools to improve air quality in time for September.

“This investment and access to reserves will enable more social distancing and improve air quality, and ultimately strengthen the layers of protection to keep students and staff safe," Lecce said.

With just three weeks to go before kids go back to the classroom, Lecce was asked in a follow-up interview on CP24 whether the plan allows boards adequate time to hire staff and find space.

Lecce answered by saying the province has been adding “layers of protection” to its plan to “de-risk the circumstance.” However, he provided no estimate for how long it might take for boards to make proper use of the funds.

Lecce said students must get back to the classroom in September for the sake of their mental health and said the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Williams, has given the plan his blessing.

Speaking alongside Lecce, Williams noted that he recommended closing schools in March when there was a greater amount of community transmission, but said that circumstance has changed.   

“If there was that concern now, I would not recommend opening at this stage, but I am recommending opening,” he said.

He added that the current numbers and the scientific data support reopening schools.

“If there’s concerns and issues – scientifically and evidence-based – we would like to have those presented to our table so we can assess those,” Williams said.

He said current infection-prevention measures, such as hand-washing and masking, along with robust testing and contact tracing, give him confidence that opening schools now is safe.

Lecce said he is open to staggered starts at some boards where kids from different grades return to school on different days, but he said any arrangement must be within “the spirit” of the ministry’s plan.

Ford says changes show province is listening

Speaking minutes before Minister Lecce at a news conference in Windsor Thursday, Premier Doug Ford said the province “is listening” and rolling out “enhancements” to its plan.

Asked what will happen to the concept of 10-person social circles once kids are in close proximity of around 30 other people in the classroom, Ford said the province would like to keep the classroom cohorts low.

“I know the cohorts in the schools are 15 and we’re trying to keep it that way,” Ford said.

“It’s all about being flexible and adaptable and listening. Listening is absolutely critical. You’ve got a listen to the parents, number one, and the teachers and the students obviously. We’re listening. We have the best plan.”

Ford went on to say the provincial plan included broad input and that the province will continue to make changes as necessary.

“It was a collective agreement between the health professionals and the teachers, the teachers unions, everyone had their input. So we’re going to enhance it every chance we get,” Ford said.

Unions say plan puts kids, teachers in danger

However, the province’s four largest teachers’ unions slammed the province Thursday, issuing a letter accusing it of failing to meet the requirements set out in the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act by failing to take all reasonable precautions around the return to the classrooms.

“By reopening schools without measures to appropriately address critical issues, the Ministry of Education has placed the health and safety of educators, their students and the entire school community in significant and imminent danger,” the letter reads.

The Toronto District School Board said using its $131 million reserve money to cover the cost of smaller class sizes would "lead to future financial risks."

In a letter to trustees, TDSB Interim Director Carlene Jackson said its reserve funds are already earmarked to support ongoing projects, school budget carryovers, and future benefit liabilities.

"It would not be prudent or good financial management if we were to use a large amount of reserve funds to cover the entire cost of smaller class sizes," Jackson wrote.

Instead, she stated that staff are now exploring whether a portion of its reserves could be used to augment the board's share of the $30 million provincial funding to hire additional educators. School boards are expected to submit an application for the funding.

For elementary class sizes of 15 or 20 students to happen, the board, the largest in the country, said it needs at least $20 million.

Liz Stuart, the president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, told CP24 Thursday that the announcement amounts to a “lack of leadership by the ministry.”

Since announcing the plan to restart schools, parents, teachers and opposition leaders have drawn attention to what they say is an obvious flaw; that students in elementary grades will not be guaranteed adequate physical distance in classrooms.

Guidance from the province's top epidemiologists and pediatricians called for at least one metre of distance between desks and tables, with two metres encouraged.

Last week, Lecce suggested there was more the province could do to allow proper distancing in classrooms.

Concern about distancing has sparked a protest on the lawn of Queen's Park showing paper cut-outs of children sitting too closely together in a classroom and a petition calling for average class sizes to be made drastically smaller secured 223,000 signatures as of Thursday morning.

Several teachers' union leaders even suggested they are considering legal action against the Ford government to force them to allow for physical distancing in classrooms.

Premier Ford has repeatedly said his plan for reopening schools was informed by only the best medical advice available, and that parents in other provinces are envious of the plan.

Other details

  • The province is mandating that kids in grades one to 12 who are learning remotely must receive a minimum of 75 per cent live synchronous learning each day.
  • The province is providing $18 million for boards to hire principals and support staff to oversee online learning