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Ontario Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce makes an announcement at Queen's Park in Toronto, on Aug, 13, 2020.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Ontario school boards that have polled parents on their plans for the fall are projecting that 15 per cent to 30 per cent want to do online learning as calls grow for a delayed start to the academic year to allow classrooms to prepare for COVID-19.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Friday that Ontario will allow boards to stagger the start of the first week of classes, such as having different grades start on different days. He said schools are already staggering start times, bus times and recess to allow for physical distancing.

This week Mr. Lecce said that school boards would be able to “unlock” $500-million in reserve funds to help them lower class sizes or lease additional spaces. But teacher unions argue the province’s plan falls short and more time is required. Classes are set to resume in the province on Sept. 8.

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Toronto Public Health has also raised concerns, saying in a new letter to the city’s boards that they should consider starting school later in September or have staggered start dates, “in order to allow for sufficient time for public health measures to be incorporated.”

Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said there is too much anxiety among parents and school staff to return on time.

“Without a real plan to bring class sizes down to 15 students, I am calling on Doug Ford and the Ontario government to announce that the reopening of schools will be delayed, so that we can get it right,” he said.

‘It’s really stressful’: Why the decision to opt kids in or out of public school this fall is so difficult

Yes, your kids should go back to school. Yes, it can be done safely

School boards across the province are conducting surveys to gauge families’ intentions to return to school in-person this fall. While most have yet to be completed, some school boards say they can already anticipate enrolment numbers.

At the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, preliminary data suggest between 25 per cent to 30 per cent of parents are opting for online learning, although the survey is still open, spokesperson Bruce Campbell said.

The Halton District School Board projects that more than 16 per cent of its students will be learning entirely online this fall. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) is anticipating that approximately 15 per cent of its students will be doing the same. In Ottawa, the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est estimates that about one out of five of its students will opt-out of in-person learning. The three boards’ predictions are also based on preliminary data.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest school board, and the Ottawa Catholic School Board said figures would be available once their parent surveys are complete.

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The heads of Ontario’s education unions, who have threatened to go to the labour-relations board over what they say are unsafe conditions, said the government is not taking responsibility to mandate smaller classes.

“The government has landed these changes just weeks before school starts,” said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.

“In order for school boards to make every attempt to reduce class sizes, ensure physical distancing and put in appropriate ventilation, we urge them to consider a staggered start to the school year or to delay the return to school to ensure the safety of students and educators.”

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the Ministry of Education’s plan presents an “extreme degree of vagueness.”

“The school start should occur no sooner than we can ensure that we have appropriately mitigated risk. And we’re not at that point right now,” he said.

The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA) said boards “are frustrated and concerned” with the government’s plan to use reserve funds, which they say have “already been designated for other high-priority initiatives or unanticipated expenses.”

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Meanwhile a $50-million government investment for HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) upgrades, is a “positive step.” But with schools set to reopen in three weeks, “it will be extremely difficult for schools to put any additional funding to use prior to the first day of school,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the OPSBA.

The TDSB has roughly $130-million in its reserve fund, but it is spoken for, for benefits and long-term-disability insurance, according to board spokesperson Ryan Bird.

“That is not a rainy-day fund as they say, much of that is employee benefits,” he said. “That is not an amount of money that is sitting there without any obligation to it.”

TDSB trustees will be discussing how much of the reserve funds can and will be used at a Tuesday board meeting.

The HWDSB’s reserves stand at $35-million, but most of those funds are already assigned, according to Shawn McKillop, a spokesperson for the board. Only $11.8-million will be available for use over the 2020-21 school year.

“Hiring teachers to reduce class size is on the table,” Mr. McKillop said about use of the reserve funds, “but the board will decide if and how much on the Aug. 24 board meeting.”

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Last school year, the HWDSB used $2-million of its reserves to purchase PPE and iPads for students.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board says it now has access to about $23-million of its reserve fund, which it says could potentially be used in “challenging areas of the system.”

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