Ontario’s Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on Premier Doug Ford to scrap the province’s current back-to-school plan on Thursday and replace it with one that delivers smaller class sizes.
“This is not a plan that allows for safe distancing of kids, and it's not a plan that is about the safety of our children,” Horwath said, standing outside a Hamilton-area school expecting more than 1,000 students in September and which already uses 19 portables.
Ford said Wednesday he is “not holding back on a penny” as he faced a barrage of questions about back-to-school plans critics say do not provide enough funding to keep students safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Going into September, talk about losing sleep, that’s my number one priority, to protect the kids, and I'll do whatever it takes to protect the kids,” Ford said at a news conference on Wednesday about an unrelated funding announcement where most questions from reporters revolved around education.
That was not good enough for Stacey Davis, a Grade 1 teacher with children in grades 3 and 5 who joined Horwath on Thursday and called the plan “insufficient, underwhelming, and quite frankly, irresponsible.”
Davis said she was among a group of teachers asked in June to see how much space they could create in their classrooms and was unable to space the desks for her 20 to 22 students at least one metre apart.
She was unsure whether she would send her own children back to school.
“I want them to attend school and I want to teach as well, but until the government makes adequate changes to this plan, I will not be sending my kids to school and I do not feel protected as an educator,” she said.
“This plan can be made better,” she added. “I will not be made a guinea pig and I will not settle.”
Ford dodged when asked if his government might add to the $309 million it set aside for pandemic-related adjustments in the plan he and Education Minister Stephen Lecce released last week, saying he would “never say never, put it that way.”
“We know what Mr. Ford is all about,” Horwath said. “Let's not forget this is the guy (who) was expanding classroom sizes before the pandemic hit. He was on track to fire 10,000 teachers.”
Ford also sought to present the plan as the product of advice provided by pediatric and public health experts and said the money made available was the most per student in the country.
“If it was up to us, there’d be five kids in the classroom,” he said. “We’re doing pretty good (with overall COVID-19 cases), so let’s give this a shot.”
Ontario is spending $165 per pupil, which the government said compared to $162 in Quebec and $79 in British Columbia.
“We’re going to give it everything we can and make sure that we move forward and pray to God that everyone is safe,” he said.
Guidance released by the Hospital for Sick Children and other health experts at the end of July recommended that smaller class sizes be a priority, guidance that opposition politicians say Ford and Lecce have ignored.
“Addressing structural deficiencies, such as large class sizes, small classrooms and poor ventilation, must be part of any plan to reopen schools,” the July 29 report said.
“Doug Ford often refers to this report, but refuses to follow their advice,” said Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, whose party has estimated it would cost $3.2 billion to reopen schools safely. “He has not put one dollar towards finding additional space for students or teachers.”
The hospitals — which also include Ottawa’s CHEO, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, Kingston Health Sciences Centre, Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre, McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton and Unity Health Toronto — issued a carefully worded statement after Ford spoke that did not directly reference the earlier call for smaller class sizes.
“We encourage the Ministry of Education, all school boards and schools to consider our guidance as they implement the health and safety measures based on their local environments and COVID-19 circumstances,” they wrote.
‘I feel like I’m getting sent back to die’
Student Isaiah Towers is not comfortable with the plan, seeing negative outcomes whether attending class in person or choosing to stay home and learn remotely.
“As a student, I can confirm I’m terrified,” Towers tweeted. “So are a majority of students. Personally, I feel like I’m getting sent back to die. But if I don’t go my education will slip even more.”
While children who contract COVID-19 appear to fare better than adults, less likely to be heavily hurt by it, the broader risk is that schools reopening could reignite community spread.
An online petition started by a teacher-librarian on the weekend that demands a reduction in class sizes had garnered almost 168,000 signatures by mid-afternoon Thursday.
Ford said he would not hesitate to shut schools again if a second wave of infections emerges.
“It’s time for the premier to get off the campaign bus and get back to the drawing board,” said Mike Schreiner, the leader of the Green Party of Ontario. “Crowded classrooms and too few dollars for education make for unsafe learning come September.”
The country’s largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, said in a planning document released last month that it would need to hire nearly 2,500 more teachers at a cost of almost $250 million in order to teach elementary students full time in groups of 15.
Ford said that kindergarten enrolment is capped at 30 with both a teacher and an early childhood educator, and that they would be expected to cohort students into groups of 15 within the classroom.
Ford also said that people “live in a bubble to a certain degree in Toronto, and we don’t think anywhere else exists.” He said that the government’s plan also takes into account the “80 per cent (of Ontarians who)... live in the rural areas,” whom, he said, have in some cases gone months without new COVID-19 cases.
In fact, almost six million of Ontario’s 14.6 million people (or more than a third) live in the Greater Toronto Area, which includes the city of Toronto and a string of municipalities surrounding it.
Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 3:34 p.m. on Aug. 6, 2020 with comments from NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and a teacher/parent.