The Ontario government’s back-to-school plan is getting mixed responses from parents and educators as they catch a glimpse of how schools will reopen in five weeks.
On Wednesday, the province unveiled its blueprint for a return to in-person classes for September.
The plan which has elements of the previous back-to-school plan from last year calls for a full return to in-person learning five days a week with the possibility to change or shift to remote learning in case of a surge in COVID-19 cases again.
The plan calls for cohorting among elementary school students, and for masks to be worn for all grades while inside a building with them not mandatory with physical distancing in place outside.
The new plan would also see the return of extracurriculars like sports and clubs.
However, Craig Smith, president of the Thames Valley Elementary Teachers Federation is not confident with the new plan, saying class will still be packed, making it hard to distance.
‘“The quote-on-quote plan they announced today looks remarkably like the plan announced last year, except it has been loosened up so that’s where I think the starting point is — It’s a plan with a lot of holes that you could drive a truck through.”
A key piece of the announcement was $25-million to update ventilation in schools and buy more HEPA filters, but Smith is not convinced the changes will be made to the majority of schools.
“It’s not a question of if it can be done in time, it’s if it can be done at all, the school boards were under similar directions last year,” Smith said.
“Any additional money really isn’t additional, they have done a massive cut to education and butting in small drops to make it seem like they are investing when they are not.”
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said today every classroom in schools without mechanical ventilation systems will have a standalone HEPA unit when students return to class and that the $24-million will be used to buy 20,000 more HEPA filters which will be enough for every classroom.
Lecce said about 70 per cent of schools in the province have mechanical ventilation and nearly all of them are using higher-grade filters and changing them more frequently with 50,000 filters already circulating in schools without proper ventilation.
Smith questions how the province will test the air in schools after no defined plan was outlined in the announcement.
For London parents like Rachel Palmer, the recent announcement was a welcome move.
“I feel confident, and I feel like the government is working with parents instead of against them this time.”
Palmer has two children, a son who is eight, going into grade 3 and a daughter who is 12 going into grade seven.
Her daughter had had her first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, and will be fully vaccinated come September, while her son is too young to get the vaccine.
Palmer said this last year was really hard for both of her children, especially her son who has ADHD.
“We did well encouraging him to learn, but there were a lot of times we just closed his Chromebook and said we were done for the day.”
She said it was also hard for her daughter who attended class, but did not want to turn her camera on.
Palmer said she is happy people will still be wearing masks and looking at the plan she does not have concerns.
“This virus is not going to go away anytime soon – it’s something we have to live with and we have to start living so we need to learn to adapt to our lives with the virus,” Palmer said.
Other parents like Kate Smith are less confident in the plan, which she says was similar to years past.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” she said.
“Parents should be asking a lot of questions, I find maybe pandemic fatigue has really gotten to a lot of us, but we have a right to know our kids are safe and have the right to know what’s going on in the schools.”
Smith, whose son is going into grade 4 said she is worried that the plan is not different from last year where she had issues with the safety of her son at school.
“Bus drivers were not masking, parents were not masking, kids were coming out fo the school unmasked so it made it hard.”
Smith’s son attends a French immersion program and she said the last two school years were hard but she is not confident sending him back into a classroom in five weeks.
“I don’t have another shut down in me.”
“I have already lost one job because of just being home (for online learning) and I don’t want to lose the one I have so I am trying to figure out how to be okay being at work while the kids are at school not beings sure of what’s happening,” she said.
With files from Nick Westoll and the Canadian Press
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