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Canada’s largest school board is delaying the start of virtual learning again after more families switched their children to online instruction amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The Toronto District School Board announced on Monday that virtual classes will begin on Sept. 22 because of an influx of more than 6,000 students to online learning over the past week. So far, 72,000 children are enrolled in online learning, a number the board expects to continue to grow.

"It became clear over the weekend, especially with increasing numbers, staffing a Virtual School of this size – larger than the total enrolment of most school boards in Ontario – was not going to be possible in time for Thursday and we wanted to inform you right way,” Carlene Jackson, interim director of education, said in an e-mail to parents.

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Ms. Jackson said the board is adding more than 200 additional virtual classes and needs extra time to reassign teachers and create timetables.

TDSB schools open on Tuesday for in-person classes, with staggered entry over three days. The board’s virtual classes were initially slated to begin on Tuesday, before being delayed to Thursday and now postponed to Sept. 22.

Some Ontario parents, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, have been gravitating toward virtual learning as the number of COVID-19 cases climbs amid concern about a second wave. Ontario reported an increase in infections for the fourth day in a row on Monday, with 313 new cases, a level not seen in the province since early June.

The Peel District School Board recently postponed the first day of live online classes to Sept. 21 for elementary children and the following day for high-school students. In an e-mail to families on Saturday, the board said 64,000 students were enrolled online, an increase of more than 10,000 students in the past week.

Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said school boards are “working around-the-clock” to respond to increased demand for online learning. Ontario parents can choose in-person or virtual classes and can switch between the two options at set points during the year.

Toronto parent Tripta Sood said the TDSB’s repeated delays because of increased demand are not fair to families who registered for online classes in late August.

“The kids who opted into remote schooling by the deadline are now being held back to their detriment and that’s what really bugs me,” said Ms. Sood, a lawyer whose seven-year-old daughter is doing virtual learning.

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As schools reopen, many parents have expressed concerns about large class sizes and difficulties maintaining physical distance in schools.

Initial observations released Monday from a study conducted by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children found “it was not possible” to have more than 12 to 15 students in a typical classroom and maintain two metres of distance between students – even with desks pushed against all four walls.

“It speaks to the importance of a bundle of infection prevention and control measures to support a safe learning environment, which may require creative use of space, including but not limited to outdoor learning opportunities where feasible, to optimize physical distancing,” Dr. Michelle Science, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at SickKids and co-leader of the study, said by e-mail.

In August, SickKids researchers recruited 190 students and 15 teachers to test some of the proposed pandemic-era school rules inside classrooms at the Bishop Strachan School and Upper Canada College, two private schools in Toronto.

The simulation, which was filmed over two days, revealed some of the same challenges that have cropped up in parts of Canada where in-person learning has resumed, including human traffic jams at pickup and drop-off and lost or soiled masks.

Among its top findings was the fact that students in a regular-sized room did not have enough space to follow the two-metre physical-distancing rule if classes exceed 15 children, as many classes are expected to in Ontario.

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The report recommended that if class sizes cannot be reduced, schools should consider alternative set-ups such as dividing children into cohorts within their own classes.

The pilot study also revealed that there were crowds and delays at entrances, even with staggered start times. Students didn’t know what to do with their masks at recess; some tied them around their wrists, got them dirty and wound up needing extras from the school. Teachers and other adults congregated in break rooms and bathrooms, raising the risk of the virus spreading among staff.

The SickKids researchers have already shared their early observations from the simulation with school-board and public-health officials. The pediatric hospital, Canada’s largest, has been advising Ontario’s government on aspects of its school reopening plan, along with experts from the province’s other children’s hospitals.

With reports from Caroline Alphonso and Jeff Gray

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