The Toronto District School Board says it is considering a shorter school day or reassigning teachers to achieve lower elementary class sizes, as other public-health units echoed Toronto Public Health’s call to make classes as small as possible.
Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the TDSB, said the school board is working with the Ontario Ministry of Education to “explore options” to lower elementary class sizes. He said depending on funding, other strategies may be considered, such as shortening the school day, reassigning teachers from non-classroom roles and lowering class sizes in areas deemed at-risk by Toronto Public Health.
“While school boards, including the TDSB, have received additional funding for staff, this limited funding is not enough to cover the requirements in a system our size, let alone the entire province,” he said in a statement.
Parents and educators in Ontario have expressed frustration about the school-reopening plan released by the provincial government last week, which does not lower class sizes in elementary schools. Toronto Public Health said this week that maintaining normal class sizes in elementary schools means children will not be physically distanced and will face an increased risk of spreading coronavirus.
On Friday, other public-health units echoed the call for small classes.
Ottawa Public Health said it also supports small classes, coupled with other measures such as wearing masks and handwashing. Brent Moloughney, associate medical officer of health, said Ottawa is looking to balance the risk of COVID-19 transmission with the well-being of children who have been out of school since March.
“[Ottawa Public Health] supports having the number of students within a classroom to be as small as possible, in order to facilitate appropriate physical distancing, and to maintain distancing and limit the mixing of cohorts in common areas such as hallways and washrooms,” Dr. Moloughney said in a statement.
Lawrence Loh, medical officer of health for Peel Public Health, said the region is working with school boards on ways to practise the “four core” behaviours to address COVID-19: handwashing, two metres of physical distance, masking indoors where distancing is not possible, and getting tested and staying home when sick.
“Physical distancing of two metres is one of the four core behaviours that can help limit exposure to COVID-19. One of the possible ways to achieve this in schools is through smaller class sizes,” Dr. Loh said in a statement.
Jacqueline Durlov, a spokeswoman for Hamilton’s Public Health unit, said the city supports the reopening of schools and “having class sizes that support physical distancing as much as possible.”
In a revised statement on Friday, Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health, said public health is “supportive” of Ontario’s plan, but wants to “build” on it by recommending smaller classes to maintain physical distance of two metres. “Small classes will also help limit virus spread to fewer people if a case is identified in a school setting,” she said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Friday he’s moving forward with his government’s back-to-school plan but remains “flexible.”
“We’re just asking for everyone – including the parents, and the teachers’ union and the school boards, to work with us,” Mr. Ford said.
“We’re going to move forward with this, with making sure we’re flexible and we always listen.”
A guidance document released last month by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and other Ontario pediatric hospitals said that smaller class sizes should be a “priority strategy as it will aid in physical distancing and reduce potential spread” of COVID-19. It gave the example of other jurisdictions with maximum class sizes of 10 to 15 students, but did not set out specific class sizes for Ontario.
In an interview, the co-authors of the document, Ronald Cohn, president and chief executive of SickKids, and Upton Allen, chief of infectious diseases at SickKids, said they were “very pleased” the government implemented many of their recommendations, including a surveillance-testing strategy for high-school students.
Dr. Allen said the guidance document did not recommend class sizes for Ontario because the focus should be on physical distancing, rather than a specific number. “With smaller class sizes, it will be more feasible to physical distance,” he said.
But Dr. Cohn said that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. “There will be some schools who will potentially be able to accommodate a larger number,” he said, adding that some schools will have to get creative, such as going outdoors. Dr. Allen added he was “encouraged” by the government’s use of the term “flexibility.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Mr. Ford said the government is providing school boards with $30-million to hire more educators, with Ontario the only province to do so. The TDSB has said if elementary students are divided into cohorts of 15 and there aren’t any schedule changes, it will need to hire nearly 2,500 more teachers at a cost of almost $250-million.
Mr. Lecce also said school boards could draw on reserve funds – money that has gone unspent in a given year. His office later said the total is $131-million for the TDSB.
Mr. Bird said that some reserves have already been used to balance the budget, while others have been committed to “specific future obligations.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.