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Back to School 2020

5 big questions for back to school

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September 2020 promises to be a fall like no other. With changes to plans for school openings almost occurring on a daily basis, parents, teachers, board administrative staff and board officials from the local public and separate school boards are trying to ensure that the return to school can be done as successfully and safely as possible with the very limited funding available.

While the discussion has been dominated by class sizes and mask-wearing, the Advocate has chosen five back-to-school priorities that aren’t necessarily top of mind when people think of schools reopening on September 8.

These include COVID protocols for school buses, cleaning of school sites, the status of extracurricular activities, staff morale, and what might be required of parents.

It has been more than a century since local school and health officials have had to confront a public health pandemic, and much of what will be implemented today will reflect the best science available, the financial circumstances of bus companies and the local boards of education that depend on provincial largesse to operate — and the harsh reality that likely a vaccine against COVID-19 is months or even years away.

Are the teachers onside?

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The short answer? No.

Most Ontario teachers say they want to be back in the classroom this fall, but only if local school boards and the province meet several important criteria. One teacher admitted to being baffled by “how you can teach, discipline and assist without violating social distance regulations. It is simply impossible to do.”

When the province announced in late July that all publicly funded schools were to offer full-day, five-day-a-week school this fall, with pre-COVID class sizes, it caught many teachers off guard and caused a social media backlash seldom seen in the educational community.

One long-time elementary teacher expressed disgust for the Hospital for Sick Children report the province used as a basis for its focus on in-person learning for the fall. (All classroom teachers quoted in this article asked for anonymity in exchange for sharing their candid opinions.) “I am sure they are fine doctors (at Sick Kids) but they haven’t been in a classroom since the days of the one-room school house. I think they are expecting me to stand at the front of the class sheathed in Plexiglas and deliver my lesson. They are so clueless about what real teaching is.”

Online, in meetings and in private, many teachers are voicing similar frustrations about the reopening of schools this fall.

“Our prime concern is the health and safety of our workers, and along with them, students,” said Colin Matthew in an e-mail. His union represents secondary teachers in Trillium Lakelands District School Board.

“We will be focused primarily on infection control.”This may mean some combination of masking along with physical distancing which can be incredibly difficult in a high school environment and on the buses,” Matthew added.

His counterpart with the elementary teachers’ union, Karen Bratina, agreed. “Regardless of the model (for instruction) emergency funding must be provided by the Ford government to ensure a safe and effective reopening of schools for all stakeholders,” she said.

“Boards will require additional staff to ensure smaller class sizes for social distancing requirements,” Bratina added, “and sufficient personal protective equipment must be provided along with additional hand-washing facilities throughout the school.”

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association represents staff in the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland Clarington Catholic District School Board (PVNCCDSB). It issued a strongly worded statement on August 10 that read, in part, “The safe care of our children is a fundamental social compact. Society and economies are built around child care. Parents want to send their kids back to school, but only if it is safe.”

“Older teachers instructing high school students every day and in classes of 25 to 30 are very concerned about catching COVID,” one veteran teacher said.

“We now know teens carry and spread the disease at the same or higher rates than other adults, and that scares me.”

What options are parents considering?

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Back-to-school decisions have never been as complex as the ones facing parents and guardians this fall.

With no vaccine and concern about a second wave of the pandemic arriving in late fall, parents spent much of the summer agonizing about whether to send their children back to school, enrol them in e-learning or home-school them this year.

Since Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce made their announcements on schools reopening, social media have been ablaze with parents of school-aged children asking for advice from other parents who are facing the same circumstances.

One common topic is the concept of “podding,” where a group of parents combine financial resources to hire a teacher to instruct their similarly-aged children either in person or online, at least for the fall and early winter. The teacher provides the expertise the parents don’t have, the cost is shared across several families, children are no longer being isolated in their family group, and the parents can wait out the growing pains that regular schools will experience in dealing with COVID-19.

Depending upon the size of the pod and the number of children involved, the costs would likely be in the range of $50-$100 a week per family.

Most local families, of course, cannot afford podding.

Three parents of multiple children agreed to be interviewed anonymously for this article. They all agreed that they had very few choices for the fall beyond sending their children back to school and hoping that the province and local schoolboards can keep their children safe.

“The Catholic board seems to be playing catch-up,” one parent observed. “Communication has been terrible, and rumours become Facebook facts when the board is silent. I have heard that our board is allowing cottagers to enroll their children locally rather than return to their urban homes. I have phoned the board office to find out if that is true and gotten no satisfaction,” she continued.

“I don’t have the competency to help my kids as they enter high school,” a second parent admitted, “and our internet is just not good enough to sustain the two of us working from home and our kids trying to do their schooling from home. I am terrified, as are my girlfriends.”

“I think Dougie (Premier Doug Ford) has gone for cheap rather than safe,” said a third parent, “but families like ours don’t have the choices that some do. One thing though, they won’t be riding the bus. Fifty kids on a bus … those are mobile petri dishes. I will drive them and pick them up.”

Will schools be clean enough?

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As desperate as they are to return to some kind of normalcy in their lives, parents who were contacted by the province made it clear that schools must be safe and sparkling clean before their children arrive back on Sept. 8, and that they need to remain that way.

Probably for the first time in a very long time, this pandemic has caused people’s attention to focus on the very important women and men who clean their children’s schools: the custodial staff.

Depending upon the school, there could be as few as one or as many as 20 custodians. And they’re every bit as concerned about conditions in schools as parents are.

“Most of us are over the age of 55 … and this is terrifying,” said one custodian with the Catholic board. (Staff quoted in this story requested anonymity.) “I can’t imagine with all the uncertainty around school cleanliness and safety that anyone would be interested in a custodial position right now.”

Another custodian from TLDSB said in a text, “It is all a numbers game right now … If more than half the kids come back, all bets are off without more staff and schools closing to the public when the buses roll. There simply won’t be enough staff to maintain the level of cleanliness that will be expected. I have seen a quarter of our kids home with the regular garden variety flu in December. COVID is much more serious for me, my fellow custodians and my students.”

Safety is the word on everyone’s lips. “Support staff wants students and staff to be able to work and learn together in a safe environment,” said Bill Campbell, president of the CUPE local that represents support staff including custodians at the Trillium Lakelands board.

Many school buildings are open from early in the morning until late at night, a veteran custodian who works in a public high school pointed out.

“When the students leave, the public comes in. There is no way we will be able to get the buildings clean if they are still open for public rentals.”

“Those public rentals also expose the staff to hundreds of other individuals who might be carrying the coronavirus. That is very frightening for front-line workers like school custodians,” the custodian added.

Are extracurriculars ‘dead on arrival’ this year?

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Many students of all grades and backgrounds become involved in extracurricular activities at their school. Pre-COVID there was a myriad of activities available for students at minimal cost: sports, music, drama and clubs of all shapes and sizes.

Parents and students are wondering if, with schools reopening, will extracurriculars be returning too?

In late July, the Ontario government stated, “Organized sports and clubs have been given the green light to proceed if physical distancing can be maintained and equipment is cleaned regularly.”In Ontario, high school sports are governed by OFSAA, the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations.

The organization has formed a Return to Sport Committee with input from community sports organizations and public health officials. “We will be ready when it is safe to return to play,” said Nick Rowe, president of OFSAA.

In mid-August, Wes Hahn, the new director of education for Trillium Lakelands District School Board said he hoped that some school clubs might be able to operate virtually. He downplayed the possibility of sports where physical contact between participants is hard to enforce and social distancing would be impossible.

As one long-time high school coach noted, “I don’t think there will be much staff interest this year. Coaches as a whole are getting older, and teenagers are prime COVID carriers. Buses, change rooms, gyms and pools will be prime breeding grounds for this illness.”

Music ensembles face serious hurdles, too. “How can you socially distance with 40 kids in a music room?” wondered a music teacher. “How can you play a number of key instruments with a mask on? Extracurriculars are dead on arrival this year, and that makes me so sad.”

Officially sanctioned or not, extracurricular activities can only take place if teachers are willing to lead them, something that’s far from certain.

A veteran elementary teacher has put on numerous plays and pageants but just doesn’t see them happening this school year, saying such activities don’t feel safe for either teachers or students If those safety concerns aren’t addressed, the teacher added, “I will not be in my building one minute longer than I legally have to be.

How safe will buses be?

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Rumours that “Bus companies have no plan for back to school” are misleading and must sound scary for parents, said Greg Hammond. He owns Kawartha Lakes Bus Lines and is a senior executive with School Bus Ontario, the lobby group that represents most school carriers in Ontario.

“What exactly the plan looks like I am not able to say,” Hammond added during an interview in mid-August, “but parents can be assured that it will be a good, safe and workable plan.

“We have been considering all the different contingencies. School boards and school bus operators have been in constant conversation. We will get the kids to school safely,” he promised.

The province announced minimum standards for school buses at the end of July. They recommend students be assigned seats and sit with people from their household or classroom cohort. The standards stipulate that the driver will receive PPE, the seat behind them will be left empty, and that the windows should be left open when possible.

In normal times, Kawartha Lakes Bus Lines fields a fleet of approximately 130 buses responsible for delivering elementary and secondary students in TLDSB to the school of their choice.

Pre-COVID, buses were limited to 48 riders who were in Grade 6 and older, or 72 students in the kindergarten to Grade 5 age range.

Although boards close to Kawartha Lakes reported a worrying shortage of bus drivers for September, according to conversations with local drivers, Hammond says his company worked hard to recruit and train people. “We hope we are not short drivers.”

The Trillium Lakelands board surveyed parents in August to determine how many children would be going back to school in person. (The separate school board likewise asked parents to declare their intentions.)The bus company had to wait for those results before it made its hiring decisions.

With a reported average age of 62, according to a Teamsters Canada rep, Ontario bus drivers fall into the category of those who will be hit harder if they were to contract COVID-19.

Other jurisdictions have floated proposals requiring multiple bus cleanings a day, something Hammond suggested was “a reasonable expectation.”

He added, “Enhanced cleaning costs money in cleaning products, time and labour. It is going to be something we will be looking at closely.”

As of the Advocate’s press time, there did not appear to be any COVID-based restrictions on the number of students allowed on a bus.

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