For the leaders of Sudbury’s teachers’ union, the issues with the provincial government’s back-to-school plan come down to class size, cohorts and ventilation.
On Aug. 5, the provincial government released its plan to get students back in school for September, but it is one that has faced criticism, namely from union leaders.
Here in Sudbury, the discussions surrounding the plan are centred around class sizes, cohorts and ventilation.
Ontario students returning to schools in September will be able to play on sports teams, use instruments in music class, go on field trips and remove masks outdoors, even if distance can't be maintained. Extracurricular activities will resume and there are new relaxed rules on shared spaces like libraries and cafeterias, but students in Grade 1 and up will continue to require masks indoors.
Students will be attending in person for full days, five days a week — unless they have opted for remote learning — and high school students will have timetables with no more than two courses at a time.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce then announced Aug. 4 that $25 million more in ventilation funding for standalone HEPA units. The government previously announced more than $500 million in ventilation improvements are underway.
Schools with mechanical ventilation are expected to use the highest-grade filters possible and turn their systems on at least two hours before school starts, and schools without are expected to have standalone HEPA filter units in all classrooms.
But while the investment in ventilation is desperately needed, Chantal Rancourt, the president of the Sudbury-Elementary local of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), said the timing is not sufficient.
“Without proper investments in ventilation, which could have been taking place over the last year and a half, transmission will undoubtedly occur in school settings again this year,” Rancourt told Sudbury.com. “While the plan released does address some ventilation improvements, the reality is that boards are not given time to implement everything prior to the start of the school year.”
Liana Holm, president of the Sudbury Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) agrees. She, too, worries the time allotted for ventilation upgrades is insufficient.
“Ventilation is a very good thing, but everybody across the country, across the world is looking for ventilation,” said Holm.
She noted there are still work orders on the go, and purchasing the equipment to be installed will be difficult.
“You can say that we can have all the HEPA filters we want,” said Holm, “but the HEPA filters have to be purchased and there are none in the system.”
Holm also said there is an issue with class sizes and the difficulty posed by the need for physical distancing.
“We keep hearing that the two meters of physical distancing, ventilation and vaccines are the key,” said Holm. “But two meters of social distance in a classroom of 30 kids — we don't have rooms big enough to accommodate that.”
While the students are asked to socially distance within classrooms, the groups they move in, or cohorts, are changing significantly.
“The plan suggests cohorting of elementary classes and distancing ‘as much as possible’ in classrooms,” said Rancourt of the OECTA. “Yet students can gather to eat in cafeterias without masks and assemblies will take place with several classes seated together.”
Rancourt said the plan is inconsistent.
“There does not seem to be consistency in the plan and it is severely lacking in the more important areas such as ventilation, distancing and testing,” said Rancourt. “After a year and a half of dealing with this virus, it does not make sense that the outbreak management protocol is still being ‘worked on’.”
Rancourt adds, “The simplest way to say it is that it’s too little, too late. We’ve learned so much about the virus over the last year and a half yet this back to school plan looks very similar to last year’s plan.
Maurizio De Poli, president of the OECTA Sudbury Secondary Unit, feels the same way about cohorts and distancing. He is not only an educator, but the parent of two high school students. He told Sudbury.com he is having difficulty seeing the strengths in this plan for secondary school students.
“The government's plan continues to rely heavily on cohorting, but not so much on physical distancing in the classroom,” said De Poli. “There are really no new health and safety strategies, only some slight loosening of restrictions: lunch in cafeterias, inter-school sports, assemblies, and school trips.”
He advises caution as the school years begins, especially due to the variants of concern. He said OECTA has been calling on the provincial government for smaller class sizes and enhanced ventilation, but also improved testing and tracing, improved outbreak management and vaccination outreach, education and accessibility.
De Poli said with these measures in place, and continued use of masks, schools in Greater Sudbury should be able to remain open for in-person learning, “which is what is best for student learning and for their mental and physical health.”
He adds that, “with almost 61 per cent of children aged 12-17 having received one dose of the vaccine, and almost 45 per cent having received two doses here in Sudbury, Catholic secondary schools here in Sudbury should be returning to normal schedules (4 classes/day), and hybrid learning should be eliminated.”
Sudbury.com also contacted the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) representative, Eric Laberge, but he was unavailable for comment.
All three representatives interviewed have issues with not only the plan, but the provincial consultations as well.
“Unfortunately, the Ford government has yet to engage in meaningful consultation with education unions, and their latest plan falls short in addressing most of these measures,” said De Poli. “ With less than five weeks until most students are back in the classroom, what Premier Ford and Minister Lecce have put forward continues many of the inadequate policies from the last school year, which led to unprecedented disruption.”
De Poli said reopening must be done safely to be sustainable.
“The massive disruptions and learning losses of the previous school year, with students pivoting between in-person and online learning, cannot be repeated,” said De Poli. “The Ford government must revisit its plan and make the investments called for by education and public health experts.”
Holm says that while parents have “stepped up,” in ways they probably never thought they would have to, the online platforms were taxing for everyone and that “nobody wants that again.” However, Holm also advises a slow and cautious approach.
“Our schools, although they are magical places, they're not magically virus resistant.”