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A grade six class room is shown at Hunter's Glen Junior Public School in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Toronto public schools are reassigning more than 500 elementary teachers to virtual learning, which will shift thousands of in-class students into larger classes and mix cohorts amid rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts in the city.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said on Tuesday that another 7,800 students last week chose to move from in-person classes to online learning, on top of more than 70,000 that registered at the start of the academic year (about 3,000 will switch from virtual school to in-person learning).

The board also said its bricks-and-mortar schools have been “overstaffed” because class sizes, based on registration numbers, were well below its targeted caps. That means 324 elementary schools will lose teachers, some more than four, and many children will no longer be assigned to the educators they have been with for more than three weeks.

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

School boards typically reorganize classes early in the school year to balance cohorts. However, that process is more chaotic this fall because the Ontario government allowed families to choose between in-class and online learning, and several boards, including the TDSB, extended deadlines and added new ones for families to make the switch.

Boards have scrambled to hire more teachers amid a shortage. At the TDSB, students in more than 30 virtual classes still do not have assigned teachers.

In a letter to families on Tuesday, the board acknowledged that the changes would not be easy. “The TDSB is making every effort to better balance our schools with as little disruption to your child’s learning as possible. However, for some students this may mean being assigned to a new teacher, a different class or, in some cases, a mixed grade,” the board stated.

TDSB spokesman said that about 570 elementary teachers would move from in-person to virtual classrooms over the next two weeks. This could result in a greater number of split classes in schools. The board had established class caps, which were lower in high-priority neighbourhoods. However, it found that some classes had so few students that groupings could not be maintained because provincial funding is based on class-size averages.

“We must ensure we have allocated teachers to the places where students are attending and that staff allocations match available resources,” according to a staff presentation made to trustees at a meeting on Monday evening.

About 37 per cent of elementary students will be in virtual classrooms by next Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said TDSB class sizes are below the provincial average and “supported” by the government’s investments. However, while the province has put some money into hiring more teachers, it has not changed its funding formula.

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The TDSB and other boards in the province have implemented measures, including having students wear masks in school and maintain some distancing, to limit the spread of COVID-19. Another measure is having students remain with their class cohorts for recess, perhaps assigned to specific areas of schoolyards. The board said it consulted Toronto Public Health on the reorganization, including the fact that many classes will change.

Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health, said in an e-mail statement on Tuesday that Toronto Public Health has advised the board to take additional measures, including keeping track of specific cohort changes. The board also said enhanced cleaning would occur before the switches are made.

Andrew Morris, an infectious disease expert at the Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto, worries that combining cohorts “theoretically increases risk to all the members of the classrooms, including teachers.”

He added that the evidence so far suggests acquiring infection in school is much less common than in the community.

“So, the magnitude of this increased risk … is uncertain,” Dr. Morris said.

Parent Yona Nestel, who is also the school council chair at Secord Elementary School in the city’s east end, said she is frustrated by the constant disruptions to the lives of children. Her son is in Grade 2, and Ms. Nestel heard that his school would lose at least one teacher in the reorganization.

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“All kids really need is some stability and normalcy right now,” she said. “I’m exhausted. I don’t even know what to do anymore.”

Ms. Nestel added: “It always feels like a scramble. It just makes me so angry that it is with children. You think you live in a place where children’s rights and children’s education is a top priority … [and] we’re seeing how fragile that all is when you have a government that just doesn’t care.”

Jennifer Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto union local, described the situation as a “complete mess.” She said some elementary virtual classrooms are overcrowded, with more than 30 students.

She worries that the reorganization could lead to multiple grades in one classroom. “It’s not ideal. … We’re talking about the mental health of our students, for their development and their growth,” she said. “This is not the final change for many of our teachers and students.”

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