Ontario education minister ‘unlocks’ $500M to improve distancing, ventilation for back-to-school

Education minister to make announcement amid back-to-school plan criticism

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says he’s “unlocked” $500 million in funding to enhance physical distancing and improve air quality, along with providing PPE and boosting the number of custodians, ahead of the return to school in September.

The minister also announced an additional $50 million for upgrades to ventilation systems and $18 million for online learning amid concerns over student safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The half a billion dollars in funding comes after the ministry allowed school boards to dip into reserve funds. Boards that do not have reserves will be provided with funding from an $11 million allocation.

Lecce promised the new funding following weeks of criticism of the province’s back-to-school plan from parents, teachers and medical professionals, particularly when it comes to class sizes.

On Thursday, Ontario’s four major education unions issued a press release stating that the province’s current back-to-school guide “fails to meet legal health and safety requirements” and that teachers and students are not protected against COVID-19. 

The unions, which represent more than 190,000 teachers and education workers, raise red flags over the lack of mask requirements for children under 10, larger class sizes, poor ventilation in schools and lack of adequate screenings and safeguards for students. They’ve asked to meet with Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton and representatives from the Ministry of Education to discuss their concerns.

In Ontario, there will be no cap on the size of classes for grades 4 to 8. Instead, the only stipulation is a maximum average of 24.5 students per class across each school board.

WATCH | Provinces adjust back-to-school plans:

As B.C. delays the start of classes and Ontario parents protest class sizes, the provinces could look to other countries for how to approach going back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. 2:01

This would mean it’s likely a child could be in a class with 30 or more other students. 

Teachers and parent groups held a protest at Queen’s Park on Wednesday to address the class-size issue, as well as draw attention to the sometimes poor ventilation in older Toronto schools that could exacerbate the crowding concerns.

The Education Ministry is looking into the concerns over ventilation in some schools, Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, told a press conference Thursday.

Parents and teacher coalitions at Wednesday’s protest asked the province for $3 billion in funding to allow for smaller class sizes and updated ventilation systems.

Both Premier Doug Ford and Lecce have stated that physical distancing may not always be possible and have encouraged parents to opt for online learning if they are concerned for their child’s safety.

In a report examining back-to-school planning published in July by SickKids hospital, it’s recommended that smaller class sizes be a “priority strategy.”

However, the report said, there is “limited evidence” on what to base the maximum class size numbers on as it depends on other factors, such as the size of the classrooms and if non-traditional spaces, like outdoor classrooms, are being used.

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