By Charlie Senack
For the first time since mid-March, parents are gearing up to send their children back to school. But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, some parents are worried that not enough is being done to keep students and teachers safe. Over the past weeks, in anticipation of the return to school, different voices have weighed in on the issue locally.
On Aug. 10, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was in Kitchissippi to share her discontent with the Ford government’s back to school plan during a media event outside of l’école élémentaire publique Louise Arbour, located at 175 Beech St.
Horwath said parents need to feel fully confident sending their students back to school, adding that they have been “doing a super juggling act for months” but that they are “extremely worried.”
The NDP leader added that if she was sitting in the premier’s seat right now, she would be “very, very busy” finding extra classroom space and hiring additional staff.
“I’d be hiring thousands of more teachers, I’d be making sure that our schools have proper equipment and supplies for deep cleaning, for more regular custodial work,” said Horwath. “I’d be making sure that additional (learning) spaces would be determined.”
About 20 parents and teachers joined Horwath at the August event, including Rachel Inch, an eighth grade teacher from Broadview Public School. She was concerned primarily with the amount of students she could have in her small classroom.
Last month, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that Grade 9-12 classes will see a cap at 15 students, but students in kindergarten to grade eight will return to a full-sized classroom.
“I regularly have classes of 32, 35 or even 39 students that are 13 to 14-years-old and most of them are adult-sized,” said Inch. “That many bodies in a room all day makes social distancing next to impossible.”
Inch’s son, Chesel Law, 11, stood by her side during the event and indicated he had concerns about the return to school. Inch said Chesel is an “extrovert who needs the routine and community of attending school.”
If class sizes were smaller, the anxiety many parents, students and educators were feeling could go away, Inch added.
Ottawa Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden organized the gathering at l’école élémentaire publique Louise Arbour. He said when parents raise their voice and put pressure on the provincial government, controversial decisions start to get reversed.
Harden has two kids, ages nine and 12, and said he recognizes the concerns parents are facing. He feels more funding should be allocated to ensure additional staff can be hired on as a way to reduce class sizes.
“We are a wealthy country and when there are moments of digress, you make sure the resources are there to get through it and we worry about rectifying the costs later, not in the middle of a pandemic,” Harden said. “You can’t do public education on the cheap.”
Since Horwath’s Aug. 10 announcement, multiple changes have been made by the provincial government and Ottawa school boards regarding back to school plans.
The Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) are among 24 Ontario schools boards on the designated list for a mix of online and in-class learning for secondary school students. Schools that see small student populations — typically in small towns — will be able to operate as usual, with little to no change.
The provincial government is also mandating masks for students from Grades 4 to 12. While it’s not mandatory for students from kindergarten to Grade 3, it’s still highly recommended.
A motion was brought forward to the OCDSB to mandate mask wearing for all students but it was defeated in late August after receiving recommendations from Ottawa Public Health.
“This was quite a controversial topic and I have received many emails from both sides asking us to mandate masks, asking us not to mandate masks,” said Justine Bell, the OCDSB Trustee for Zone 10, Somerset Kitchissippi.
“The bottom line for me is that it aligns with the health evidence that we have and what we heard from Ottawa Public Health is that the evidence is inconclusive,” she added. “Ottawa Public Health recommends that we encourage masks, [but] that we do not mandate masks for our youngest grades.”
Both school boards have decided to have a staggered start to the school year — the first day of class for some will be Sept. 8. All students are expected to make a return to class by Sept. 18.
“We have a staggered start as our approach, something many boards are doing in Ontario,” said Jeremy Wittet, OCSB Trustee for Zone 7 – Ward 7 Bay and Ward 15 Kitchissippi. “The purpose is to allow for physical distancing in schools, to allow staff and students to climatize themselves with the new school environment, and to just ease into the new reality.”
Both area trustees said they have confidence in their respective boards’ plans to ensure a safe return to school in the fall and feel issues will be kept to a minimum.
“I am confident that we have the best plan that we can at this moment to ease the safety of both students and students,” said Bell. “Can it get better? Can we reduce the risk even more? The answer to that is ‘yes.’”
Bell added that she works in international development as her day job and has seen first hand how the COVID-19 pandemic has hit other countries.
“When I step back and look at what Canada is doing — particularly the capital of Canada — I take a sigh of relief because I know that we have the best experts and professionals that are working behind the scenes,” she said.
Wittet echoed a similar sentiment and said that the OCSB has invested a lot of money into hiring more staff to keep the students safe, including additional custodians to help with the new enhanced cleaning measures.
“I think everyone is fearful and that is rightfully so,” he said. “But I would say that we have the best educators, we have a robust plan that is in place. “We were one of the first boards to have a plan in place and we were quick to make adjustments as per the ministry.”
Editor’s note: With the reopening of Ontario schools, information is changing continually. For the latest information on Kitchissippi schools, visit the Ottawa Carleton District School Board website (ocdsb.ca) or the Ottawa Catholic School Board website (ocsb.ca).