Ontario's education minister says that teachers' unions had a voice in the government's back-to-school strategy after union leaders slammed the province for what they called a "severely underfunded" plan.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who spoke to CP24 on Friday morning, said since schools closed in March, the province has held "over 100 meetings" with union leaders to "discuss priorities."

"What we heard is they wanted students to be masked and we did that from Grade 4 and up based on the emerging evidence that that is the most effective way to do it," Lecce said.

"We were told by the unions they wanted access to (Personal Protective Equipment) for their members and we have done that for every single educator and supply teacher and staff member entering our schools."

The province's plan for September, which was released on Thursday afternoon, will see all elementary school students returning to the classroom full-time with no decrease in class sizes.

Elementary students will be cohorted through the day, eating lunch together and going out for staggered recess in their classroom groups.

Desks and tables in classrooms will be kept apart as much as possible, but ministry officials say they cannot guarantee two, or even one metre distancing in all settings.

High school students in larger cities, including municipalities in the GTA, will attend classes on alternating days with the same 15-pupil cohort for as many different classes as timetables allow.

All students in Grade 4 to 12 must wear masks while indoors and younger students will be "encouraged" to wear face coverings.

The province said an additional $309 million will be provided to help school boards respond to the pandemic, with $80 million allocated for additional teachers and custodians.

But in a joint statement released Thursday, the province's four largest teachers’ unions criticized the plan, saying that it would take nearly 10 times that amount of money to hire adequate staff and obtain space to properly physically distance students.

“Schools are supposed to be safe places for children. This plan does not adequately address the safety of students or staff,” Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), said in a written statement.

“Restaurants, grocery stores and gyms will have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools given the insufficient funding allocated in this plan.”

Lecce said the province's plan is based on input from multiple sources, including school boards, trustees, and medical experts.

"We are talking about a pandemic and perhaps the key input needs to be medical and scientific evidence that guides us," he told CP24 Friday.

He said Ontario's plan also includes "unique elements" that other provinces have not included, such as hiring 500 registered nurses who will be embedded in schools.

"We will test aggressively high school students for asymptomatic students in the province to again ensure the integrity of those cohorts to just keep these kids safe," Lecce said.

"We are going to work with our federation partners. Now is the time for us all to collaborate on the way forward... I want our union leaders and our school boards and parents out there to know that we will continue to listen and act in the interest of kids."

'Staggered return' to classroom may be necessary

In a written statement released Friday, the Ontario Principals' Council said there are still "several factors" that make it difficult to know exactly how implementation of the province's plan will "play out" come September.

"Given all the unknowns at this time, it may be necessary to implement a staggered return, whereby students cumulatively start classes over a two-week period in September, so that schools can address any challenges as they arise," the statement read.

The group noted that a number of things will need to be sorted out prior to the start of the school year, including whether the province will be able to provide an adequate number of supply teachers and support and administrative staff to fill in for employees who become ill.

Schools also need a "clear plan for how students are to physically distance in small classes with little to no room to move around, particularly given pre-COVID-19 class sizes," the statement read.

Questions also still linger about how online learning will be administered and who will be responsible for leading virtual instruction.

"While we acknowledge that consulting the medical community is necessary to ensure safety for our students, it is essential that the minister is also regularly consulting with front line educators- principals, vice-principals, teachers, and support staff- who will be in schools when they reopen, and who can provide the best and most accurate depiction of the situation as classes resume," the statement concluded.

Larger elementary class sizes will pose challenge

Infectious disease expert Dr. Isaac Bogoch said while the province's plan is not "perfect," it appears to be a safe one.

"I think if we look at this in its entirety, I think by and large most of it is really good. They are doing their best to adhere to these fundamental public health principles of mask wearing and distancing and hand sanitation and cohorting," Bogoch said.

He said overall, the success of the plan will be largely based on how well the community as a whole does to contain the spread of the virus.

"(It) really depends on what is happening in the community around us," he said. "Let's keep those community rates low. That will help keep the schools safer."

He added that the one notable challenge will be for elementary school teachers who have to manage larger class sizes.

"I think the wrinkle in this plan is that the younger children will be in larger class sizes and that is going to be tricky to facilitate physical distancing," he said. "It is hard to control kids at the best of times let alone when you really have to keep them apart."

At his daily COVID-19 briefing at Queen's Park on Friday, Premier Doug Ford sidestepped a question about whether the province considered reducing the size of elementary classes.

"I'm the first to admit it... are we going to face a challenge? I'm sure we are going to face a challenge," Ford said. 

"But did we get the best medical advice we could ever get from some of the smartest minds in the country? Yes we did."