Ontario’s Education Ministry will require the province’s school boards to offer virtual classes throughout the 2021/22 school year, while holding back some of its pandemic-related funding to see if the public health situation improves.

And while the Progressive Conservative government set out its plan for the next school year, it gave no indication about whether students might return to classrooms for this year.

The provincial government said it will provide $1.6 billion in temporary COVID-19 support in the next school year, which includes more than half a billion dollars that boards can draw from their own reserve funds. It said the province would cover costs if any board uses more than two per cent of its reserves, up to another two per cent.

Boards had requested a reimbursement of reserves they dipped into for the current school year, which totalled around $500 million, that the government had previously counted as part of its own financial contribution to the pandemic response.

“We are going to be planning, and we’re asking school boards to plan, for all circumstances, as we did last year,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce, referring to models that restrict students to smaller groups, or cohorts, in a mix of in-class and remote learning, a more typical return to schools, and an online option.

“We’re doing that because it is prudent and necessary for us to think ahead of what circumstance could be thrown at Ontario and how do we ensure that children continue to learn,” he said, adding more details would follow in the coming months.

The Opposition NDP’s education critic said the move solidifies government efforts to push online learning, a key point of disagreement in tense contract negotiations with education unions just before the pandemic hit a year ago.

“It's extremely clear from today's update that (Premier) Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce are trying to push the province forward toward permanent online learning,” said Marit Stiles. "Planning for online learning for the entire next school year is not just about COVID-19, it's about the government saving money off the back of our kids, and it always has been.”

A department planning document outlined how the ministry intends to support school boards trying to minimize learning loss and other disruptions for students who have spent much of the past year learning from home.

Ontario’s Education Ministry will require school boards to offer virtual classes throughout the 2021-22 school year while holding back some of its pandemic-related funding to see if the public health situation improves. #onpoli #OntEd

But only $144.6 million of those pandemic-related funds are being allocated in their entirety at this time, with boards otherwise advised to only budget for around half of those funds, with the province to confirm in the fall whether the remainder will be needed.

“It makes planning very difficult. It makes hiring decisions very difficult if they don't even know that they'll have the funding for a year,” said Harvey Bischof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF).

The pandemic-related funding includes up to $450 million for personal protective equipment and other critical supplies, $86 million for public health nurses and asymptomatic testing, $65.5 million for transportation, and $59 million for special education, mental health and well-being.

It said it was allocating $62 million for 2021 summer learning and $20 million for re-engaging students, as well as $15 million for technology such as renewal or replacement of devices.

The province’s primary funding mechanism for schools is expected to increase by 2.2 percent, or $561 million, for a total of $25.6 billion in Grants for Student Needs.

That works out to $12,686 per student, which OSSTF’s Bischof said was an increase of less than 1.3 per cent while the combination of inflation and enrolment growth alone would require a two per cent increase.

His colleague at the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Sam Hammond, said the plan also appears to discontinue stabilization funding from this year, making it less of an increase than might first appear.

“Their smoke-and-mirrors approach is intended to fool us into believing they are investing new money. They aren’t,” he said.

The Toronto District School Board, which drew the maximum allowed from its reserve funds to operate in the current school year, said it welcomed the extension of pandemic funding but was also still awaiting word on what the remainder of the current year will look like.

Lecce deflected questions on whether schools — which have been closed in and around Toronto since early April — might open their doors to students again this school year.

“We’re encouraged to see that the government is continuing COVID-related funding for this September,” said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird. “While we all hope that school will be as close to normal as possible, the reality is that a remote option will still need to be available to families given the unpredictability of the pandemic.”

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 5:57 p.m. to include comments from the NDP’s education critic, the presidents of two education unions, and a spokesperson from the Toronto District School Board.