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The number of children in each class has become the subject of discussion across the country as public-health experts and educators argue that more physical distance reduces the spread of coronavirus.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Canada’s largest school board says it is exploring ways to keep elementary classes from being too large, but concedes it lacks funding to keep them at 15 students amid growing anxiety among parents and educators about schools reopening this fall.

The Toronto District School Board’s interim education director, Carlene Jackson, said the government did not mandate or provide funding for elementary grades, which can have classes of more than 30 students. Classes could be reorganized before students start school, staff said, and the school board would look at adding more teachers.

“We realize these plans are not perfect, but we’re not in a perfect situation,” Ms. Jackson told trustees in a board meeting on Tuesday.

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The number of children in each class has become the subject of discussion across the country as public-health experts and educators argue that more physical distance reduces the spread of coronavirus. Some school board officials fear affluent parents will remove their children temporarily – perhaps even permanently – from the public education system if classes are too large.

New Brunswick’s back-to-school plan includes keeping the numbers as close as possible to 15 in kindergarten to Grade 2. Quebec has said each class will contain groups of six students with no physical distancing required among them, but will be separated by one metre from other groups within the same classroom.

Ontario has limited classes in high school to about 15 students, but not in the elementary grades, saying the risk of transmission is greater among older students. Elementary students would remain with their class group all day, including lunch and recess. However, some infectious disease experts warn that transmission could be underestimated because children are less likely to be tested and might not have symptoms. A school guidance document from Ontario’s pediatric hospitals released last week said smaller classes should be a “priority strategy.”

Premier Doug Ford told reporters on Tuesday he understood that “parents are nervous,” adding that families have the option of remote learning.

Amy Greer, an epidemiologist at the University of Guelph, said that in countries that have kept students in groups of 10 or 15, such as Denmark and Germany, officials have not seen transmission associated with schools reopening. She said class sizes in Ontario, which can reach into the 30s, are “problematic.” The province has class caps of about 20 in the primary grades, but in Grades 4 to 8, the average class size is 24.5.

“The usual class sizes will likely impact the sustainability of schools remaining open and also increase disruptions,” Dr. Greer said.

She added that larger classes increase the risk of transmission of the virus within a group. If enough cases turn up in a school, students could be out of the classroom again.

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Teri Mooring, president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, said the messaging from public-health officials has focused on limiting the transmission of the virus through physical distancing and wearing masks. Yet, she said, “there’s a disconnect between what we’re being told is safe [in public] and some of the requirements that are in place for schools.”

She said stakeholders in public education need to use the limited time before classes resume to find unused space in schools and hire additional teachers to reduce the numbers in each room.

Carol Campbell, an associate professor of leadership and educational change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said there would be added benefits to reducing class sizes in the fall. She is worried that some students, especially those from disadvantaged communities, will be academically behind, and having fewer children in a room could have a positive impact on their achievement, attendance and behaviour.

Research on the effects of reducing class sizes in the primary grades has shown that it has helped improve academic achievement, although one study showed that training teachers to deliver a high-quality curriculum is the key to high-quality education.

“Smaller class sizes will be educationally beneficial after the period of school closure to allow teachers to assess their students’ learning and needs, and to provide individual support,” Prof. Campbell said.

The Toronto school board plans to have high-school students attend on alternate days to keep cohorts separate. Students would learn remotely the rest of the time, with a mix of live online instruction and independent learning. Schools can offer clubs and extracurricular activities if physical distancing is possible, but organized sports are on hold.

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The board said it will ask families to preregister starting next week, which will provide a sense of how many students are coming. Class sizes would be adjusted based on that.

Shelley Laskin, a long-time Toronto trustee, said one of her biggest concerns is that more advantaged families will opt for remote learning or establish so-called learning pods with friends and neighbours. People in the United States are already forming such pods, in which groups of parents hire teachers to guide their children in learning, and parents in Canada are posting messages about the idea on social media.

These families may not return to the public system, Ms. Laskin said. “Confidence in our public education system is at risk.”

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