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A physically distanced classroom with masks and hand sanitizer is seen at Kensington Community School on Sept. 1, 2020.Carlos Osorio/The Canadian Press

The Toronto District School Board says some elementary students could be put into classrooms with three grades in places where large numbers opt for online learning.

Carlene Jackson, the interim director of the TDSB, described the split-class plans to trustees in an e-mail, in which she also outlined new caps on classroom sizes in elementary schools. They range from 15 students per teacher for kindergarten classes in schools that Toronto Public Health has labelled “high priority” – schools in communities hardest hit by COVID-19 – to 27 for higher grades in all other schools.

“An example of this would be a school with enrolment in Grade 4 of seven students, Grade 5 of eight students and Grade 6 of eight students,” Ms. Jackson wrote in an e-mail on Friday.

As the board begins outlining its classroom plans for the 2020-21 school year, some educators worry schools in low-income communities and high-priority areas could see higher rates of collapsed classrooms. They say the move could make teaching and learning in the midst of a global pandemic more difficult.

Canada’s back-to-school plans: The latest news, and resources on COVID-19 and your kids

Results from the board registration survey show that 30 per cent of elementary students across the school board will be studying online this fall. But school-specific data reveals that schools in lower-income neighbourhoods and in areas hard hit by COVID-19 have some of the highest rates of projected online learning.

At Lord Dufferin Junior and Senior Public School, in Toronto’s Regent Park neigbourhood, 27 per cent of students are set to learn from home. This number is however subject to change as the school attempts to contact 21 per cent of parents who have yet to respond to the survey.

Split classes are “a huge issue, and it’s going to happen mainly at our schools because we’re the ones with the highest numbers of students who are not returning,” said Mary Jennifer Payne, an intensive support teacher who worked at Lord Dufferin until this summer. She has taken a leave of absence because of an autoimmune disease, which would place her at high risk if she were to contract COVID-19.

“It’s really frustrating because we already know the inequities are growing so much,” Ms. Payne said. “You’re looking at areas where students need even more support after the pandemic, and you’re putting them into classrooms that are huge with split grades, when they actually need that intensive support. ... It’s a social justice issue.”

Jennifer Brown, president of Elementary Teachers of Toronto, fears triple-grade classrooms will make physical distancing nearly impossible. She said teachers still do not know which class they will be teaching or where, and that the possibility of having to teach “three curriculums at once” could be straining.

“It’s completely unrealistic to be putting additional stressors on the students and on the staff, to be in a triple grade during a pandemic,” Ms. Brown said.

“It is not at all best practices, especially at this time, when we are concerned about mental health and bringing students back to where they should be after such a long hiatus from the education system.”

Ms. Brown directed her frustration at the provincial government, which she said has put together an “ill-conceived plan” for education.

Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, said that “while this was a decision of the Toronto board, the province has provided all school boards with substantial funding and additional resources to ensure classes are safe and learning continues – which remains our top priority during this pandemic.”

The board also adjusted its classroom caps as a result of registration data. Toronto schools in communities hardest hit by COVID-19 will have kindergarten classes capped at 15 pupils and other elementary grades capped at 20.

Junior and senior kindergarten classes outside of high COVID-19 priority areas can have up to 24 students in a single classroom. In those schools, classes between grades 1 and 3 will be capped at 20, while those between grades 4 and 8 will have up to 27.

Globe health columnist André Picard and senior editor Nicole MacIntyre discuss the many issues surrounding sending kids back to school. André says moving forward isn't about there being no COVID-19 cases, but limiting their number and severity through distancing, smaller classes, masks and good hygiene.

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