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Boards eye partial back-to-school plan that worries working parents

School safety issues could complicate world of work


(LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe Stock)

TORONTO — Andrea Moffat can’t decide what will be worse for her five-year-old son in September — keeping him at home or allowing him to make a partial return to school.

The 42-year-old college professor said her boy has struggled with feelings of neglect over the nearly four months since schools across Ontario closed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Once, as his mother tried to juggle parental and professional responsibilities, he asked her whether he or the phone was more important.

But Moffat doesn’t believe the situation will improve when classes resume in the fall, especially since government instructions make it clear that students won’t be welcomed back full-time.

The mix of in-person and remote learning most boards are contemplating, she said, leaves her with concerns about how the school year will play out for parents and kids alike.

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“I’m obviously extremely concerned,” she said in an interview. “What am I going to do without some kind of a consistent model of school?”

That will be compounded, she said, should she have to return to the workplace.

“How do you survive if you don’t have a grandparent that can take them or a neighbour that’s safe?” she said. “Whatever happens, I’m gonna have to figure out where is the least likely place that he will get COVID for me to drop him at.”

Preparations ongoing

School boards across the province are still in the process of developing contingency plans for September based on general instructions provided by the government on June 19.

At that time, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said boards would be expected to prepare plans for three scenarios: regular in-class instruction with physical distancing measures in place, full-time remote learning, and a hybrid model blending both approaches.

Lecce said he expects all students to start the 2020-21 school year with the blended model, which will see no more than 15 students in class attending on alternating days or weeks.

Several school boards contacted by The Canadian Press said their plans are still in flux as they work through the various scenarios.

But in a recent letter to parents, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board laid out a tentative proposal for the coming academic year.

“Current discussions about this model would have … half the students attending school on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday would be a day for deep cleaning of schools, and on Thursday and Friday, the other half of the students would attend school,” the letter reads. “This model looks and feels very different, but is an important step towards the return to a regular school day.”

Such a plan is also under consideration at Canada’s largest education provider.

Ryan Bird, spokesman for the Toronto District School Board, said models under discussion include options that would see students allowed into class during staggered days or even weeks. He said the TDSB is also considering implementing “quadmesters” of high-school students, which would see the academic year divided into four sections of two courses apiece.

“Staff have also been considering (personal protective equipment) requirements, the ability to physically distance students and staff, the ability to switch between remote and in-person learning, and transportation, among a number of other items,” Bird said in a statement. “We will be further refining our plans in the weeks ahead and will be working with the Ministry of Education and public health officials to finalize them in August.”

Child-care issues

One area some feel has received short-shrift is child care, where rules for the coming school year remain unclear.

Kerri Whitaker, President of Sunshine Child-Care Centres, which operates several in-school day cares in the Toronto area, said many of the hybrid models will prove untenable for parents.

Child-care providers are already operating at limited capacity, she said, leaving them poorly equipped to take on new children on a potentially erratic schedule.

Whitaker said having one full day out of the week when schools are closed for all would complicate matters much further.

“It’s the Wednesdays that’s the problem,” she said. “We just won’t be able to take most of the kids that need us.”

Whitaker said having a system based on alternating weeks would be more sustainable from a child-care perspective, but fears that message may not reach decision-makers in time for the coming school year.

Several school boards, including Ottawa-Carleton and the Peel District School Board, are sending surveys to parents in the coming weeks to allow them a say in reopening plans.

A spokeswoman for the education minister said that regardless of how school boards choose to proceed, safety is the government’s top priority.

“We are preparing for all scenarios to ensure whatever challenge emerges in the fall, Ontario is ready to keep students learning,” Alexandra Adamo said. “While our aim is to get students in class on a daily basis, it must be safe to do so.”