Premier, education minister defend Ontario’s back-to-school plan amid class size concerns

Premier Doug Ford and his education minister continued to defend Ontario’s back-to-school plan on Friday, with both unwilling to answer explicitly whether they will consider opting for smaller class sizes for elementary students amid concerns voiced by some parents, health professionals and educators. 

While both Ford and Stephen Lecce said the government is flexible and willing to adapt to any changing conditions, they declined to provide a yes or no answer under repeated questioning from reporters on the matter during a news conference at Queen’s Park. 

Lecce instead stressed a number of new investments and COVID-19 safety measures for schools announced by the province last week, including providing up to $30 million for boards across Ontario to hire more staff to decrease elementary class sizes.

Lecce first revealed the ministry’s plan for a return to class for Ontario’s two million students last Friday. Since then, he and the premier have faced some criticism over the details of the strategy, in particular the government’s decision to keep elementary school class sizes at pre-COVID-19 levels.

In Ontario, there are no cap sizes for classes in Grades 4 through 8, only a maximum average of 24.5 across each board. That means it’s not uncommon for children in high enrolment school boards to find themselves in classes of up to 30 students. 

Both Lecce and Ford have already conceded that despite measures to maximize the available space for in-person learning, distancing of at least two metres — the range recommended by Canadian public health experts amid the COVID-19 pandemic — won’t always be possible for students in school.

Ford said that while it’s not a “perfect” plan, it is still the best “in the entire country.” He also stressed that parents who are especially concerned have the ability to opt for online learning curriculums for their children. 

For his part, Lecce has repeatedly pointed to the combination of safety measures that will be in place, such as a mandatory mask policy for Grades 4 to 12, limiting the number of people students will interact with during the school day and hiring additional custodians and public health nurses.

In a statement to CBC Toronto, a spokesperson for Lecce’s office said the plan has been “informed by the best medical and scientific minds in the country” like Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, and a team of experts from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

“The evidence is emerging and our plan is a living document — it’s meant to be augmented and adapted to apply the best advice as it emerges,” the statement continued.

$234M for child-care services

Meanwhile, the province, along with the federal government, announced new funding to help support child care services during Ontario’s COVID-19 reopening. 

Ford said the two governments have earmarked $234.6 million for childhood and early-years settings among licensed daycare facilities.

The money comes as part of the Safe Restart agreement, a deal struck between Ottawa and the provinces that will see Ontario receive $7 billion in additional funding.

Ford says the child-care money will be used to enhance cleaning and public safety protocols for facilities including licensed daycare providers and First Nations Child and Family programs.

The government says it will be providing face coverings to all those settings, but did not immediately offer details of other measures the money would help fund.

Ontario’s daycare centres, which have been operating in a limited capacity since mid-March, are allowed to fully reopen as of September 1.

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