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The Toronto District School Board head office at 5050 Yonge St., is photographed in 2018.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Ontario’s largest school board says it won’t be able to ensure smaller class sizes despite a government plan to allow boards to use money from their reserves, as it warned Toronto schools may not be ready for students’ scheduled return in less than a month.

The province’s four major teachers’ unions also threatened Thursday to go to the labour relations board over what they say are unsafe conditions.

A little more than three weeks before two million students are set to return to class, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the government is “unlocking” $500-million from school boards’ reserves – money set aside to cover liabilities – that could be used to improve physical-distancing measures, such as smaller classes or leasing additional spaces.

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“We’re enabling school boards to respond to the challenges on the ground,” Mr. Lecce said. “I think that’s important to have an element of flexibility and latitude.”

Toronto District School Board interim director Carlene Jackson said in a note to trustees that the $131-million reserve is set aside for “future obligations” such as benefits and long-term disability insurance. She said it would “not be prudent or good financial management” to use a large amount of the reserve funds to cover the entire cost of small classes.

Instead, she said the board would look at using some of the reserve combined with previously announced government funding to try to get to class sizes of 15 to 20 students, but warned the board may have to consider a shorter school day and may not be ready for a Sept. 8 start date.

She said the TDSB is exploring leasing additional spaces, but doesn’t know if transporting students will be possible in time and that they will need to reassign all staff in the event of shorter days.

The government is allowing the boards to spend up to 2 per cent of their operating budget from their reserve, although officials said boards could seek approval to go higher. Mr. Lecce said boards without sufficient reserves will receive $11-million in funding. But the government is not mandating lower class sizes in elementary grades, despite growing concerns from parents. And it is leaving it up to school boards to decide whether they will stagger start dates. Schools are set to open on Sept. 8.

Ontario also said it will spend $50-million for improved ventilation and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) upgrades.

The four main teachers’ unions, which represent more than 190,000 teachers and education workers, say the government’s back-to-school plan violates occupational health and safety legislation.

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In a letter released Thursday, elementary, secondary, Catholic and French-language school unions said the plan places the health and safety of educators and students “in significant and imminent danger.” They said Ontario’s plan fails to provide adequate protections such as smaller class sizes, minimal measurable standards for ventilation and mandatory masking for younger children. Ontario’s plan will require students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear non-medical masks, and recommends them for the lower grades.

The unions called for an urgent meeting with government before Aug. 21. They said they are prepared to take their concerns to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for a ruling on the government’s plan before schools are reopened.

The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, said Thursday he supports getting students back in class. “I am recommending opening,” he said, noting community transmission numbers are under 100 new cases a day.

Opposition parties criticized the province’s announcement, saying it offers no comfort to parents and students who are anxious about returning.

“Lecce’s announcement literally amounts to a reminder that some – not all – school boards have some reserve funds, and they can use them to try to plug some of the massive holes the Ford government has in its bargain basement back-to-school scheme,” said NDP health critic France Gélinas.

The Ontario Principals’ Council, which represents 5,000 elementary- and secondary-school leaders, said Thursday that all class sizes should be limited to ensure two metres between students, and for kindergarten classes to be capped at 15 students.

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The council also said the school year should be delayed until Sept.14, with a staggered start over the course of that week, and called for expedited testing in schools.

“Bringing every student back on the same day will be problematic,” the council said.

British Columbia said this week it is pushing back the start of the school year, as plans are tweaked to follow the latest COVID-19 guidelines in the province.

Meanwhile, the TDSB issued robocalls this week asking parents whether their children will be attending school in September or if they are holding out for smaller classes.

The calls, however, caused confusion for many parents, who were not aware that the survey was a formal preregistration for classes.

Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the TDSB, said the board sent out multiple e-mails to parents about the preregistration process. He said phone calls were considered to be more timely than online surveys.

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“Having said that, we know these timelines are incredibly crunched right now. Really, we needed this information yesterday,” he said.

The TDSB said parents can change their minds before school starts by contacting the school directly after Aug. 24.

The government has previously announced it is providing $309-million to school boards for cleaning, public health nurses, masks and other personal protective equipment. It also includes a $30-million investment across the province to hire more educational assistants and reduce class sizes, although the TDSB has estimated costs as high as $250-million.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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