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In less than a month, millions of kids will return to school. What do parents need to know?

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The Ontario government has rejected the Toronto District School Board’s proposal to shorten elementary school days and have high-school students attend on alternate days, instead pushing teacher unions to concede some preparation time.

Provincial governments, school boards and teacher unions across the country are grappling with how to stay physically distant when classes resume. The discussions continue in provinces such as Ontario and Alberta with the school year just weeks away. TDSB is heading back to the drawing board after already warning the start of the year may need to be pushed back.

The board had wanted to reduce elementary school class sizes to 15 and 20 students. The scenario required hiring new staff, but shortening the school day by 48 minutes would have maintained the cost of hiring at $20-million and allowed teachers to prep at the end of day. The Ministry of Education rejected the ideas last week and is asking that students receive their full 300 minutes of daily in-class instruction. Doing so while maintaining smaller class sizes would cost the board an extra $190-million.

“But as has already been indicated by our director, and I agree, it’s not financially feasible for us to do that,” TDSB board chair Alexander Brown said. He said the province could allow the TDSB to begin the year with shorter days and adjust its schedule as the year progresses.

The board’s next steps will be discussed at a meeting Tuesday.

In a memo to the TDSB, the ministry notes that plans for a shortened school day included 48 daily minutes of preparation time for teachers. Caitlin Clark, a ministry spokesperson, told The Globe and Mail on Sunday that prep time was among the issues teacher unions “have refused to discuss.”

“This has forced boards to make significant adaptations, which in many cases does not serve to maximize learning experience, health and safety, and well-being of students,” she said, asking teacher unions to “be reasonable amid a global pandemic, so our kids can maximize learning in a safe classroom.”

Jennifer Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto, said preparation time is often used to grade assignments, plan for future lessons and conduct research. She said the time is crucial and provided by the collective agreement.

“The government is not being truthful,” she said. “The fact is it can happen, but they’re not willing for it to be flexible.”

“They’ve downloaded the responsibility of this plan to the board. The board took on the responsibility and came up with a plan, and each time they present a plan the government has rejected it and made the board have to scramble to make things again.”

The TDSB also has to rework its plan for high-school students, who the province now says must have 50 per cent of in-person instruction.

“It is absolutely absurd that with teachers and education workers scheduled to go back into schools on Sept. 1, my members still don’t know what they’re teaching, or how they’re teaching,” said Leslie Wolfe, president of OSSTF Toronto. “This government has taken a crisis and created chaos out of it.”

In Alberta, Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, is meeting with provincial Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on Wednesday. The head of the union and professional association for Alberta teachers plans to emphasize his members’ belief that it will be near-impossible to keep teachers and students physically distant from one another as children head back to school and class sizes as large as they’ve been in past.

He’s pushing for more teachers to be hired, or rehired, or for the government to consider options such as alternating attendance days to allow for smaller class sizes.

“We’re going back in the fall – well, just in a couple of weeks, really – to classes that are the same as they were before the pandemic,” Mr. Schilling said in an interview on Sunday.

“Teachers who have large class sizes are wondering how it’s going to work,” he said. “Teachers are talking about how many individuals they’ll be exposed to in the course of a day.”

In Edmonton, which had the most new COVID-19 cases of any part of Alberta last week, Edmonton Public Schools is requiring children in Grades 4 through 12 to wear masks throughout the school day, and strongly encouraging younger children to do so. But any move to a different scenario where class sizes are mandated to be smaller – ideally fewer than 15 but as many as 20, under the province’s Scenario 2 plan – must be set in motion by the Alberta government.

There are some staggered entry days scheduled for Alberta schools depending on the board (and there’s no provincially mandated date of return), but classes are set to resume the week of Aug. 31. On Saturday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe announced his government is delaying the date students will return to classes to Sept. 8, instead of the planned-for Sept. 1. Mr. Moe said the extra days will give Saskatchewan teachers and staff more time to prepare.

Last week, British Columbia also pushed back its date for a return to school to Sept. 10, from the original Sept. 8.

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