If Doug Ford is nervous about the back-to-school plan, it’s time to take a closer look

School Magazine  – 2020-08-06

“Let me be clear, I want to see every child in Ontario back to school, full-time, this September” Doug Ford; July 9, 2020

“For the parents that are nervous, I understand. I’m nervous as a premier. I’m going to be losing sleep all the way through September to make sure these kids are safe.” – Doug Ford August 4, 2020


If the premier of the province is nervous about his plan to send 2 million children and well over 160 thousand staff back to school in less than a month, then we all should be taking a very close look at it. Months ago, the  Ministry of Education told Ontario school boards to come up with contingency plans for:

  • normal school day routine with normal class sizes
  • modified school day routine based on smaller class sizes of 15 and alternative day or week delivery
  • at-home learning

It seemed to be leaning towards classes of 15 and the TDSB, for example, produced a plan for that would allow students to attend elementary school in groups of 15 all day, 5 days a week. The plan for secondary students was for them to attend in groups of 15, but on alternate days. Under the circumstances, this approach looked the safest – certainly not perfect, but balanced against the needs for kids and their families to have them back in school- possible.

But the Ford government hadn’t come up with any money yet – the crucial key to the lock. So, plans have been up in the air since then, waiting for the means to put them into action. The government finally went public with its plan on July 30. It must have taken a close look at the cost estimates school boards were returning with their contingency plans and gulped. The TDSB plan for 15 students in elementary classes was going to cost about $249 million dollars for extra teachers alone.

Last week, Education Minister, Stephen Lecce announced that the province would spend $309 million on the COVID-19 plan for all schools in Ontario. He added another $25 million for mental health and $4 million for extra cleaning. In a letter to Ontario parents, he noted the guidance his ministry received from medical experts including the Hospital for Sick Children (HSC), which coincidentally published its own back-to-school recommendations the day before.

To give you an idea of how recommendations and actual plans line up, here is a chart outlining the high points of the HSC recommendations against the Ministry’s expectations against the TDSB’s plan.


The overall plan
Hospital for Sick Children- July 29, 2020

Ministry Plan- July 30, 2020TDSB Plan August 4, 2020
Daily school
No specification about class sizes
But smaller class sizes “should be a priority strategy as it will aid in physical distancing and reduce potential spread...”
Notes that several school jurisdictions have opened with a maximum class size of 10-15
"...it is imperative that ongoing surveillance and research be conducted on the role of children and youth who are asymptomatic and symptomatic in propagating SARS-CoV-2 transmission once schools are reopened.
It needs to be recognized that it will not be possible to remove all risk of infection and disease now that SARS-CoV-2 is well-established in many communities."
Elementary schools: 300 instructional minutes in school daily – grades K- 8. Parents may opt out of sending kids to school.
No changes to current class sizes
Students stay together for the day in groups or “cohorts”

Secondary schools:
TDSB and TDCSB designated to work with 15 students in a group or "cohort" attending school on alternate days.

Special education: In school or away from school.
Boards should review Individual Education Plans (IEPs)

Adult and continuing education: remote, in school learning or combination of the two depending on safety.

Instruction: include all courses as well as new Math curriculum, health and physical education, French and music.

Teachers to assess and deal with learning gaps from time off school

Grades 3 and 6 don’t take EQAO tests this year.
Elementary and Secondary schools: same plan as Ministry
Students placed in groups or “cohorts” to limit their contacts – 50 for elementary students and 100 for secondary
No changes to current class sizes in elementary: “we will work to ensure that we don’t have overly large class sizes”

TDSB has provided “remote learning” plans for both elementary and secondary students who are unable or choose not to attend school in person.

Pre-registration survey to find out whether students will attend school in person or online in September

Special education: Individual Education Plans (IEPs) to be followed and updated according to school conditions and remote learning needs. Schools to continue to hold Resource team meetings and involve itinerant support staff, with distancing protocols, or remotely.

Adult and continuing education:
mostly online, though there could be a plan for teachers to offer some courses in person

Elementary – “to ensure each students learns grade level content from Ontario Curriculum and is able to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.” – adapting this principle to fit COVID-19 reality:
Teachers maintain an online platform for students and ensure they know how to use it.

NB: If the health conditions deteriorate in schools TDSB will go to another plan: “Elementary Alternating Days” providing instruction for only 15 students at a time on every other day.

School year is divided into 4 “quads” Most students complete 2 course per “quad”

Adapting subjects-
Co-op placements – online with some in-person placements
Health /Physical Education – depends on school conditions; schools must make a plan to accommodate students

Library, Math, Science – all need to be modified to allow kids to work together, but keep up distancing. Materials to be cleaned after use.

Tech education – TDSB is developing a safety guideline reflecting Toronto Public Health standards for COVID-19

Arts – e.g. space to allow distance, renting extra instruments for music, smaller movements in drama

Other changes- classrooms set up for maximum space, no field trips, avoid large groups, postpone inter-school sports

  • The HSC report mentions how important it is for students to return to school, if possible, on daily basis. It adds that kids under age 10 are “probably” less likely than older ones to transmit the virus that causes COVID-19. That doesn’t mean they won’t. There’s also no mention of the potential for students to transmit the virus to their teachers. Much depends on the number of cases in the community and how those may be kept at a minimum. For example, Israel was seeing as few as 50 COVID-19 cases a day back in May when it opened schools. By July that number had jumped to 1 500 with 1 335 students and 691 teachers infected, Kindergarten teacher, Shalva Zalfreind, 64 died after contracting the illness.
  • It’s also important to add that HSC recommends lower class sizes to deal with issues like distancing for children and even notes that some jurisdictions have classes of 10-15.
  • In light of all the uncertainly about conditions in the neighbourhoods that send their children to schools, why is the Ministry so concerned about keeping a full course load in place? The TDSB plan devotes more pages to teaching methods than anything else. This makes no sense. The focus needs to be on safety, not academics.
  • Why has the Ministry ignored the possibility of keeping elementary classes at 15? Kindergarten classes can be as high as 30. Many higher elementary classes get to 25 or more. The Ministry is cherry-picking from the HSC report and leaving out the most expensive measures. The Ontario Liberals have pegged hiring more teachers and caretakers to facilitate a safe re-opening at $3.2 billion. That’s a lot more than $309 million.


Keeping people safe from each other
Hospital for Sick Children- July 29, 2020

Ministry Plan- July 30, 2020TDSB Plan August 4, 2020
Cohorts or groups of kids kept together all day to avoid cross-contamination.

Screening: before entering school

Washing hands: avoiding touching face area, handwashing breaks in the day, access to hand sanitizer

Distancing: could be 1 to 2 m depending on classroom size for elementary students; 2 m
For secondary students; stagger lunch and recess breaks

Masks: depend on COVID-19 transmission in communities as well as ability to distance; not recommended for elementary kids nor for any student in low transmission areas.

School staff: need information on COVID-19 symptoms so they can take appropriate action if child appears ill

Protection of staff: includes 2 m physical distance from students; considering “facial expression” when using masks; explaining staff wear masks
Use of additional protection- face shields, gowns and gloves. Supply teacher should be assigned to only one school to reduce transmission

Higher risk students: treated depending on need; may need remote learning; may need an individualized plan for return
Includes Autism Spectrum and students with behavioral problems; may need smaller class sizes and education assistants.

Mental health: increased guidance and remediation of learning gaps; possible graduated return to school for some kids with mental health issues
Teachers to watch for possible child "maltreatment" of students due to stresses of pandemic

Suspected COVID-19 cases: staff must know symptoms of Covid-19 as well as who might have related medical conditions.

Protocol for dealing with suspected cases: separating and masking person; extra cleaning, contacting family or caregivers and testing.
There “should be clear protocols for management of staff and students who are exposed to a confirmed SARS-CoV-2/Covid- 19 case”
Schools should document student, staff and visitor attendance; be able to quickly contact families as well as public health to support and guide contact tracing, testing and return to school.

Cohorts or groups: Elementary students stay with homeroom teachers and classmates with limited contact with other teachers like French, Music, Phys-ed.
Secondary students limited to 100 student contacts. Boards should restrict contacts to two classes or within a grade.

Screening: All staff screen themselves. Boards should provide parents with checklist for screening their kids. Staff and students remain home if they have COVID-19 symptoms; get tested

Washing hands: Schools to train kids on hand hygiene; schedule handwashing breaks.
Boards provide no touch waste baskets, receptacles and hand sanitizing stations around school.

Washrooms: should cleaned frequently, make sure there’s enough soap; stagger washroom breaks to ensure distancing.

Distancing: remove extra furniture in classes to enable more distancing, use larger areas of the school for classes, “Desks should face forward rather than in circles of groupings”
No specifics on whether distancing should be 1 or 2 m

Masks: Kids in grades 4- 12 wear masks everywhere in school; may take them off outside
Students in K-3 encouraged but not required to wear masks.
School staff supplied with eye protection and – with medical exceptions- required to wear masks.

Protection of staff: work with respective unions on re-opening plans – especially around criteria for accommodation of staff with health conditions.

Mental health: School Mental Health Ontario to provide boards with a “toolkit to support the mental health of all students that can be tailored at the board and school level for all audiences”
Boards should use a “tiered approach for mental health supports” that will reach thiose affected by COVID-19

Higher risk students: Boards to offer attendance options based on need, making changes to school or remote learning when updating IEPs; consult with local public health for PPE, staff training or remote learning for medically fragile students

Lunch: lunch times to be staggered; students wash hands before and after eating; no sharing food; student use water bottles rather than fountains

Suspected COVID-19 cases: student or staff is isolated until ready to go home. Staff and parents of students with symptoms to use on “online self-assessment tool.”
People who test positive may not return to school until cleared by public health.
Schools must keep records of classes, seating charts, bus groups, school visitors, occasional teachers and caretakers for contact tracing.
Schools must report suspected or confirmed cases to public health.
School staff receive training on what to do in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Cohorts or groups: Students placed in groups or “cohorts” to limit their contacts – 50 for elementary students and 100 for secondary

Screening: All staff and students do a self-assessment for symptoms, then do a second screening with attendance record for staff and any visitors before entering school

Visitors: strictly limited including parents/ caregivers. Any visitor must wear a mask and go through screening.

Washing hands: hand washing will be part of daily routines – including after washroom use, recess and lunch breaks. Hand sanitizer available throughout the school.

Distancing: Students and staff to remain 2m apart; floors marked with stickers to show traffic flow and signs throughout building to remind people about safety.Access to common areas like libraries to be limited.Lockers won’t be used.

Masks: same as Ministry

Protection of Staff: Accommodations for illness, family etc. on case-by-case basis
“Professional learning and capacity building” for managing teaching along with health and safety
Occasional teacher roster

Mental health: in-person and online supports including office hours, wellness clubs, crisis support and counselling.
Student will also continue to get support from TDSB occupational and physiotherapists, psychologists, social workers, speech and language pathologists.

Higher risk students: May have “enhanced” PPE and use of a Safety Plan if needed. May have the option of learning from home, but will have “live contact” with teacher.

Lunch: plans developed at school level depending on space, number of student etc. Staggered lunches and recesses.
Cafeterias closed.
Student nutrition programs being considered.

Suspected COVID-19 cases: Schools must maintain a log book to record staff attendance and any visitors or itinerant staff for purpose of contact tracing if there is a suspected COVID-19 case.
Students showing symptoms are isolated and supervised by staff until picked up by caregivers – both must wear PPE including, mask. Gloves, gowns, face shield if needed. Room disinfected after student leaves.
Staff members go home.
All people with suspected cases go to an assessment centre for testing.

If test is positive for COVID-19 Principal/Supervisor notifies the Superintendent/ Manager, Health and Safety Dept. and Communications

Determines whether staff or student was in the building 2 days before symptoms appeared or 2 days before specimen collections, if person was asymptomatic

If the answer is yes, other staff must be verbally informed; person’s name Is given to Toronto Public Health who will provide a letter to other staff/students thought to have a high risk of exposure

  • As a plan for sending over 2 million people back into schools, this section on keeping people safe from each other relies heavily on hoping for the best. How does a school know if one of its kids has been carrying the virus for days without showing symptoms? How do school administrators know if everyone has screened themselves at home? What are the logistics of making sure all students wash their hands at least three or four times a day? For instance, what will it take to steer 26 grade one students into the washroom, while keeping a 2m distance, as they jostle one another? Remember, there’s one teacher in charge of this operation.
  • Another critical issue is how these plans will be tailored to suit different parts of the city. Last Sunday, the Toronto Star published a story about the different numbers of COVID-19 cases across the city. Using Toronto Public Health Data, it showed an alarming rate of up to 500 cases per neighbourhood in areas like Rexdale, Jane Finch, South Etobicoke and northeast Scarborough. Media officer for TDSB, Ryan Byrd told School that the board is working on a plan.
  • The section on handling suspected or real cases of COVID-19 raises more questions. At the school board level, how do administrators ensure that all the steps have been followed by all the staff and students who show symptoms or who may have developed COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic? How do they determine whether that staff or students who test positive were in the building the right amount of time to spread the disease? Will schools be closed if there is an outbreak? What happens to the students in that case? It’s a logistical nightmare that is highly prone to error.
  • How will school boards handle increases in staff absenteeism? How will it deal with staff who refuse to work in what they consider to be an unsafe environment?



Keeping people safe in buildings and on buses
Hospital for Sick Children- July 29, 2020
Ministry Plan- July 30, 2020TDSB Plan August 4, 2020
Cleaning: on a regular schedule using approved chemicals Doors propped open to reduce contact
No food sharing; handwashing after contacts with often-touched surfaces. Students and staff may help clean toys and equipment

Ventilation: increased by improving facilities; keep windows open if possible
Cleaning and Plant:
Extra money for more supplies and hiring caretakers: $75 million + $4million already promised
Boards to review/improve cleaning regimens considering child safety, frequency, timing, signages and PPE for cleaners
High touch surfaces cleaned minimum twice a day
Use soap and water on outdoor surfaces

Transportation: Boards may need sit students closer together in buses, letting them run at full capacity;
Students grade K-3 encouraged to wear masks; students from grades 4-12 must wear masks.
Adults on the buses wear masks and eye protection – which “for drivers should not interfere with the safe operation of vehicles”
More money for disinfecting buses.

Ventilation: Not mentioned but worth noting that the school buildings across the province have $16 billion backlog in repairs

Health and Safety: Boards refer to Occupational Health and Safety Act and provide all staff with a day of training on health and safety protocols
Cleaning and Plant:
“enhanced cleaning” - not specified- of high contact surfaces like light switches, handrails etc. twice a day

Ventilation: ventilation units have been checked over the summer; filters in air intake systems will be changed more often; increase in air intake and less recirculation of air. Windows opened if possible.

NB: 20 percent of bus driver pool is over 60 years of age
Everyone must self-assess for COVID-19 symptoms before boarding a bus and stay home if symptoms appear;
Signs to encourage students to keep 2m apart when getting on and off buses
Extra cleaning between bus runs; fewer drivers using each vehicle.
Adults on each bus to wear masks and eye protection provided it doesn’t obstruct vision.
On the bus, distancing may not be possible; students should wear masks

  • Again, with transportation, much depends on hopes that everyone will self-assess for COVID-19 symptoms before they get on a bus. To save money, these buses may now run at full capacity with children who will not be able to follow distance rules while they may or may not be wearing masks.
  • Despite the HSC recommendation to improve ventilation, the Ministry doesn’t mention it, perhaps because many schools have neither windows nor good ventilation. The TDSB, up until recently published information on school websites about specific building concerns; ventilation systems were an important topic. This information is no longer on school websites. Why has this changed? How do parents staff and students find out the state of their schools’ ventilations systems?


Parents and staff, to say the least, are anxious about this back-to-school plan, especially since there’s less than a month before doors open. Elementary teacher Sandra Bombal told School, “I have 28 kids in my class. The ESL kids would be with me too. It’s a small class with a stage in it. There will be two teachers using the space. I’m in the morning; the other is in the afternoon.” She’s speaking about the practical day-to-day issues, that none of the above reports can address: How do you make sure that students face forward and keep the proper distance when they work at tables rather than desks? How do you make students wear masks all day? What happens if they don’t?

Special Education teacher Peter Atto believes strongly that all kids, particularly his high needs students, need to get back to school. He believes his school board is doing its best under difficult circumstances, but worries about students in less affluent areas where there have been more COVID-19 outbreaks. Will these get worse as kids go back to schools? He says it’s “one more reflection of the inequity in our society.”

That’s certainly on the mind of Jane and Finch activist Butterfly GoPaul. Well before COVID-19 appeared, her neighbourhood was underserved and underfunded, she says. Class sizes tend to be larger; her son will go into a full-size grade 3 class, coming from a grade 2 class that had 28 students last year.  Sure, parents will have the option of remote learning for their children, but it doesn’t address anyone’s needs. Parents in her community go out to work at precarious front-line jobs. Staying home is rarely an option. Ms. GoPaul thinks that many people here are in a no-win situation- left wondering if Children’s Aid Society (CAS) will get involved if they don’t send their kids to school.

The plans are confusing, “ the rollout’s not clear. How is all this going to happen in terms of PPE and isolation (of suspected cases)?”

Doug Ford says over and over that he wants kids back in school, but he knows he’s taking a chance. It’s an even bigger chance because his government hasn’t put in nearly enough money to keep class sizes down. The Ministry of Education has come up with one plan that doesn’t begin to address the vastly different situations of school boards and it needs to reconsider – even if that will take more time. To use the words of Butterfly GoPaul: “one size is not going to fit all.”