Uncertainty adds to fears of Ontario students ahead of schools reopening

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With Ontario elementary and secondary school students returning to class in September, many are suspicious of the province’s plan pending further details.

The Ford government announced Thursday that schools will reopen full-time for most students, with a mix of in-person and distance learning at some high schools and the option of distance learning for anyone who wants it.

“The precautions are now moderate, but I still have this concern because teens can be a little irresponsible,” says Kirsten Kelly, 16, soon to be a high school student.

Kelly, who is also a school trustee with the Halton Catholic District School Board, adds that she was disappointed when the Department of Education offered classroom instruction only among three options, “because it would have put a lot of people, not just the students, in danger. ”

Elementary students and many high school students will be in school five days a week this fall, possibly with standard-sized classrooms, while high school students in two dozen boards deemed to be at higher risk – including the Toronto District and Toronto Catholics – will alternate between classroom and online learning. with a maximum class size of 15 to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

Masks will be required from Grades 4 to 12 and encouraged for younger students.

A report released by the Toronto District School Board on Saturday confirmed that high school students will study under the “term” system – meaning they will take two classes at a time for two months, spending half the day in the classroom. school and the other half learn from home. This means that teens can still earn the usual eight credits for the entire school year.

For elementary school students, the board says it will “work to make sure we don’t have too many classes, to minimize risk” and that it will have a better idea of ​​class sizes once that. parents will enroll their children in school or full-time online learning.

Families must inform the board of directors of their preference from Monday August 10.

“According to Department of Education guidelines, students will not necessarily be able to switch from distance learning to in-person learning, and families should plan to be on a waiting list if they change.” opinion ”, notes the board’s report.

“The ability to switch between distance and in-person learning will depend on the availability of an appropriate classroom placement. This can be at the end of a teaching period (i.e. each term at elementary level and each term at secondary level). “

Critics of the reopening plan argue that it puts children and marginalized members of society at greatest risk. It also doesn’t guarantee smaller class sizes in elementary schools, as recommended in a report from SickKids Hospital. Class sizes have been capped at less than 15 in other countries where schools have reopened, according to a summary prepared by the Center for Strategic Analysis, Research and Training.

Kelly said her younger sister, who is entering first grade, could stay home to study because her parents aren’t sure she’s mature enough to understand physical distance and the risks surrounding her.

Premier Doug Ford said Friday the plan was based on the best advice available, with the province committing $ 309 million to help cover rising costs. The unions accused the government of not spending enough to hire the extra teachers and guardians it would take to make classrooms smaller and safer.

“I think it’s really important that the department make a financial commitment, and very strongly, to funding the requirements (for personal protective equipment) or additional staff,” says Cameron Prosic, public affairs coordinator with of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association. “When things are this unpredictable, we need to know that the ministry is also financially committed to ensuring student safety.

Prosic adds that he has heard from many students who do not know what to expect and who plan to ask their parents to keep them out of the classroom.

“I know school boards haven’t sent much to students,” he said. “We also get a lot of questions on our social media pages (OSTA-AECO). People are quite confused. It’s just a little overwhelming with the right model, as there hasn’t been a lot of communication on how it will work.

Justine Mackay, a 16-year-old senior student and student counselor with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board in Peterborough, says it was her experience.

“Everything is really on hold right now,” she said, adding that many students don’t follow the daily news and would benefit from direct emails outlining what’s to come. “I think it will be a little overwhelming at first – going from distance education to going back to full time.

“I haven’t personally met anyone who retires completely and studies at home, but I think there is a general kind of anxiety in the air about returning.

Mackay says the situation is “unprecedented”, but the government has done its best under the circumstances: “It is really important that they keep students at the top of their agenda.

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Several other provinces have announced their intention to fully reopen schools in September, including British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

“I’m a little worried,” Kelly says, “only because I’m afraid there is another wave (of COVID-19) and it will be worse.”

With files from Kristin Rushowy

Raneem Alozzi is a late-breaking journalist working in the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @r_alozzi

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