Coronavirus: Doug Ford Stays Firm Amid Growing Calls to Revise Ontario’s Back-to-School Plan

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Politicians and teachers are calling on the Ontario government to reconsider its back-to-school plan as the Premier continues to say the strategy to reopen classrooms is doing enough to protect students and the staff of the COVID-19 pandemic.Doug Ford has stood firm in the face of growing criticism of the provincial plan, which does not impose maximum class sizes on elementary students. Opponents describe the strategy as underfunded and dangerous, noting that some of its aspects are at odds with scientific advice Ford insists his government is following.

As the premier continued to tout the plan’s security measures, critics called on the province to return to the drawing board.

“I ask Mr. Ford to listen to worried parents,” NDP Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Listen to the experts who say small classes are needed to keep our children safe. Time is running out, but it is not too late. We need smaller, safer classes in September. ”

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Although the Progressive Conservative government has garnered praise for some aspects of its back-to-school plan next month, the issue of class sizes in elementary schools has been controversial since its announcement last week.

The plan will allow Kindergarten to Grade 8 students to return to school without any reduction in class size, even though students will spend the day in a single cohort to limit contact with other children.

Most high school students will also be in class full-time, although students in two dozen school boards across the province are taking half of their classes online in a bid to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. Masks will be mandatory for students in grades 4 and up, while those in grade 3 and below will be encouraged – although not mandatory – to wear them.

Federal public health officials and a panel of experts from Ontario’s leading pediatric hospitals have said physical distance is a necessary component of any back-to-school plan.

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Ford, however, cited the pre-pandemic class size caps as evidence the province was heeding expert advice.

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Ford said kindergarten class sizes are limited to 30 students, with a teacher and an early childhood educator, arguing that such a setup would allow each education worker to supervise a cohort of 15 children. He said additional funds were available for school boards in need of additional support, citing $ 309 million in new education spending announced when the back-to-school plan was unveiled last week.

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“If it were up to all of us, we would have five children in a classroom,” he said during his daily press briefing on Wednesday.

“But saying that, we have the lowest number of (kindergarten) children in the country. We have the lowest grade 1 through 3 kids in the country… So we’re doing pretty well, at least let’s try.

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Ford has repeatedly said the strategy was based on expert advice from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and other institutions. The guidance document released by the hospital last week, however, described the reduced class size as a “priority strategy” to maintain physical distancing measures crucial to curbing the spread of COVID-19.

The panel deviated slightly from widespread public health advice saying that a distance of one meter instead of two could be sufficient for elementary school students, although two meters is still ideal for older children. The panel also called for widespread use of masks, a measure the government has adopted.

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Sick Kids, Cheo and five other pediatric care facilities released a joint statement on Wednesday saying physical distance and class size are among many measures that need to be in place for a safe return to school.

“Our policy statements underscore the critical importance of an appropriate set of health and safety measures _ with an emphasis on hand hygiene, cleaning, physical distance, class size, cohort , masking for older students when distancing is not possible, and improved ventilation in classrooms, ”the release said.

“Only a combined approach of all security measures will maximize risk mitigation.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce backed Ford’s support for the strategy, saying it was informed by the country’s best medical and scientific minds.

“We have been clear, we will never waver in our commitment to protect the health and safety of Ontario students and education staff,” Lecce said in a statement. “This is why we are spending at record levels and taking all necessary steps to ensure a safe return to school in September.”

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These claims are in vain for Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner, who has urged the government to give scientists an even more active role in shaping the province’s return to the classroom.

“SickKids Hospital counselors have clearly recommended that reducing class sizes be a priority strategy, but the Prime Minister has ignored this recommendation,” said Schreiner. “It’s time for the Prime Minister to reduce class sizes instead of corners and make schools safe for our children.”

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, also urged the government to thoroughly review its back-to-school proposal.

“School boards need funding to reduce class sizes and only Ford can provide that funding,” he said.

The ongoing fight over education came as Ontario reported 86 new cases of COVID-19. Wednesday’s numbers marked the third day in a row, and the fifth time in a week, that provincial case numbers have fallen below 100. There were also 146 newly resolved cases and no new deaths.

Ontario now has 35,747 resolved cases out of a total of 39,714. The death toll stands at 2,782.

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