I am confused.
The return to school looms and both parents and teachers are feeling the anxiety, uncertainty and confusion. Yes, we need to get children back to school – distance learning may have been a temporary solution that provided our children with some routine and connection to school but it is not a long-term solution. Teachers want to be back in the classroom. We understand how important it is for our children to be back in school not only for their academic needs but also for their mental health and well-being. We all need to be back in the classroom. But our return must consider the safety of everyone, children and educators and staff. Currently grocery stores, gyms and restaurants will have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools given the insufficient funding allocated in the plan.
On Tuesday, May 19, Doug Ford said, “The safety of our children is my top priority and one thing I will never do is take unnecessary risks when it comes to our children.” Fast forward to July 30th when the reopening plan was released. The government determined that Elementary level students will remain a single cohort, five days per week, including for recess and lunch. Further, school boards will be required to provide the full curriculum. Class sizes will remain at the mandated maximum levels in place before the COVID-19 outbreak. (Guide to Reopening Ontario Schools, Ministry of Education July 2020).
This is where the confusion starts. The Ministry of Education has promised that elementary schools will maintain cohorts. However, they do not discuss the fact that our students are riding on buses to school – not maintaining a single cohort and masks only required for some of the students. Students from the same families may be seated together and buses will be cleaned, but the buses are full of mixed cohorts and many bus trips are 30 min or longer. Then we have the many students that attend daycare and before and after school care in our elementary schools, not adhering to cohorts. Yes, our daycares will also have strict cleaning protocols but the same children that attend these programs then attend class later in the day, and many of these children will be “mask-optional”. So, if we are mixing our children on buses and in before and after school programs how are we maintaining cohorts?
More confusion is added when the Ministry believes that elementary classrooms have one point of contact but ignores the fact that all teachers receive preparation time during the day by other teachers and that we have specialty teachers that teach Music, French and other subjects. This means that we will have teachers in bubbles of more than one class cohort and, in some larger schools, in bubbles of over 100 children. The educational and mental health support that students receive has also been ignored. Our education workers, who often work one-on-one with students, are also shared among many students. They either work in more than one classroom or are called to assist if a child is struggling with self-regulation. So, if we are moving more than one adult in and out of our classrooms how are we maintaining cohorts with limited contact?
And then we have the physical limitations of our classrooms. As educators, we know that children need programming that is inquiry-based and centered around their needs. Learning that is engaging and NOT sitting at your desk, lecture-style learning. Yet this is what is proposed by the Ministry of Education and Ford government. They suggest that maintaining 1m apart in classrooms is the best way to mitigate the spread of Covid 19. They suggest ‘remov[al of] unnecessary furniture and place desks with as much distancing as possible… with desks facing forward.’ (Guide to Reopening Ontario Schools, Ministry of Education July 2020). We went into a school and tried to do just that and what we were left with was a classroom with desks/tables and chairs only [https://twitter.com/KPRETFO/status/1291559933704572929]. It required teachers to remove all the components of needs-based learning – reading corners and tables, flexible seating arrangements, building blocks, learning centre tables, classroom libraries, easels, art supplies etc. It strips our classrooms of the essential elements to learning in a friendly environment and forces our children to be in classrooms that are bare, minimally supplied and not set up for child centred engaging learning.
“When it comes to keeping our kids safe, I won’t take any unnecessary risks,” said Premier Doug Ford. Yet here we are, with insufficient funding to ensure that safety. The Ontario government needs to rethink its severely-flawed plan and put the necessary funding in place to ensure the safety and health of students, educators and staff. That includes sufficient funding for smaller classes, rental of additional classroom space if needed and the hiring of more educators to provide instruction to both smaller classes and to those students whose parents have elected to have them participate in distance learning.
Ontarians don’t need a government that gambles on the safety of students, staff, parents and their communities. The Ford government needs to listen to parents and educators and stop trying to cut costs on a safe return to school. We need a government that will safeguard the health of children and educators as they return to school this fall.
President, Kawartha Pine Ridge Elementary Teachers Local