Premier Doug Ford and his education minister defended Ontario’s back-to-school plan on Friday amid concerns about elementary class sizes, saying the government is “flexible” but does not intend to revisit the strategy.
“We have to be adaptable,” Ford told reporters during a morning news conference at Queen’s Park. “We have to be flexible — we have been flexible.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce first revealed the province’s plan for a return to class for students last week. Since then, he and the premier have faced criticism from some parents and educators, in particular over the decision to keep elementary school class sizes at pre-COVID-19 levels.
“As a dad, I get it. I have four girls who went through the system. I understand the concerns of the parents,” Ford said.
In Ontario, there are no cap sizes for classes in Grades 4 through 8, only a maximum average of 24.5 across each board. That means it’s not uncommon for children in high enrolment school boards to find themselves in classes of 30 or more students.
On Friday, Ford and Lecce said that the health of students is their top priority and that a combination of COVID-19 measures will keep children safe.
Lecce pointed to a number of new investments and policies for school boards announced by the province last week. Among them, $30 million to hire more staff to decrease elementary class sizes whenever possible.
Both Lecce and Ford have already conceded that despite measures to maximize the available space for in-person learning, distancing of at least two metres — the range recommended by Canadian public health experts amid the COVID-19 pandemic — won’t always be possible for students in school.
Ford said that while it’s not a “perfect” plan, it is still the best “in the entire country.”
He also stressed that parents who are especially concerned have the ability to opt for online learning curriculums for their children.
Boards encouraged ‘to be innovative’
A mandatory mask policy for students in Grade 4 to 12, limiting the number of people students will interact with during the school day and hiring additional custodians and public health nurses will all help boost safety, Lecce said.
“When you look at it as a collective, that plan and that protocol will keep kids safe,” he said.
Converting gyms and cafeterias into learning spaces will also open up space for distancing, he said.
“We’ve encouraged [boards] to be innovative.”
Despite assurances from elected officials, the province’s plan has drawn concerns from the likes of Toronto Public Health.
In a letter sent by the organization to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) this week, health experts raised a number of red flags and urged the board to keep class sizes down to ensure two metres between students.
The TDSB has also said publicly it alone would need $250 million from the province to hire enough additional staff to reduce elementary class sizes boardwide.
$234M for child-care services
Meanwhile, the province, along with the federal government, announced new funding to help support child-care services during Ontario’s COVID-19 reopening.
Ford said the two governments have earmarked $234.6 million for childhood and early-years settings among licensed daycare facilities.
The money comes as part of the Safe Restart agreement, a deal struck between Ottawa and the provinces that will see Ontario receive $7 billion in additional funding.
Ford says the child-care money will be used to enhance cleaning and public safety protocols for facilities, including licensed daycare providers and First Nations Child and Family programs.
The government says it will be providing face coverings to all those settings, but did not immediately offer details of other measures the money would help fund.
Ontario’s daycare centres, which have been operating in a limited capacity since mid-March, are allowed to fully reopen as of Sept. 1.
88 new COVID-19 cases
The Ontario Ministry of Health reported 88 new cases of COVID-19 across the province on Friday, the fifth straight day with fewer than 100 newly confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus.
Toronto, Peel and Ottawa were the only public health units to see 10 or more additional cases.
Ontario has now reported a total of 39,897 instances of COVID-19. Of those, slightly more than 90 per cent are considered resolved by public health officials.
There are currently about 1,090 confirmed cases of the illness still active provincewide.
At 66, the number of patients in Ontario hospitals with confirmed COVID-19 cases remains at its lowest since the Ministry of Health began reporting hospitalization data on April 1. Twenty-eight people are being treated in intensive care and just 12 remain on ventilators.
Ontario’s official COVID-19 death toll stayed steady at 2,783. A CBC News count based on data provided directly by public health units put the real toll at 2,821.
All of the figures used in this story are found in the Ministry of Health’s daily update, which includes data from up until 4 p.m. the previous day. The number of cases for any particular region on a given day may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, which often avoid the lag times in the provincial system.