By Kaitlyn Clark
The Haldimand Press
HALDIMAND—On July 30, 2020 the Ontario government announced that schools will be reopened for in-class instruction this September with increased health and safety protocols, including mandatory masks.
“It’s been hard on families to balance work and childcare, while kids have been separated from friends and other kids their own age. We want to get our kids back to school, but it has to be done safely,” said Premier Doug Ford. “That’s why we’ve worked with our public health experts, Ontario Health, and the medical experts at SickKids to develop a plan that ensures students can return to the classroom five days a week in a way that protects the health and safety of our children, teachers, and school staff.”
Elementary schools (Kindergarten to Grade 8) will reopen provincewide with in-class instruction five days a week. Students will be in “cohorts”, being kept with the same group of children throughout their school day with “limited” exposure to multiple teachers or a wide variety of classmates.
Secondary schools with “lower risk” will reopen with a normal daily schedule, five days a week. This includes the Grand Erie District School Board (GEDSB) and all Haldimand secondary schools. Other secondary schools, which represent about 70% of students in the province among 24 school boards, will start the school year in an adapted model of part-time attendance with class cohorts of up to 15 students that alternate between attending in-person and online. Parents will continue to have the option to enroll their children in remote delivery, regardless of their school board’s designation.
“The designation of these school boards is based on several factors that take into account the size of the school board, the number and size of the board’s secondary schools, the size of secondary grade cohorts, and whether the board is predominantly urban,” said a government information page. The designation of schools will be reviewed regularly “to support a future transition into a conventional delivery model when it is safe and appropriate to do so”.
Students from Grade 4-12 will be required to wear non-medical cloth masks in school and on school buses. Students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 will be encouraged, but not required, to wear masks in indoor spaces. The government will be providing medical masks for teachers and other staff. A government information page noted, “Reasonable exceptions on the requirement to wear masks will apply.”
GEDSB said in a release that they will be implementing new sanitization protocols in accordance with provincial requirements, which focuses on “touch points”, like doorknobs, and common areas. Families are required to keep students at home when sick or showing any symptoms of COVID-19. School visitors will also be “extremely limited.”
The government is “encouraging” schools to take steps for physical distancing. They said that while class sizes vary, with some local schools having classes of more than 30 students in previous years, “schools are encouraged to remove unnecessary furniture” to spread desks out or move large classes into larger spaces, such as gyms and libraries. Additionally, parents and caregivers are “encouraged” to find other ways of transporting children to school besides using public school buses to lessen the “pressure on transportation demand”. The government says buses “should” have assigned seating, “where possible” the seat behind the driver should be left empty to keep distancing, and windows should be opened to increase ventilation when feasible. When asked for a response to concerns raised by some local teachers and parents online that they have too many children in their class to distance, a representative of the Ministry forwarded the same information pages and recommendations discussed above.
“Health and safety protocols will focus on making time for regular handwashing. Where handwashing is not available, hand sanitizer will be used,” said GEDSB. “Directional signage will be placed to assist with physical distancing requirements, and schools will consider staggering nutrition, lunch, and recess breaks.”
GEDSB noted, “The board is working on a protocol with both the Brant County Health Unit and the Haldimand Norfolk Health Unit should there be a COVID-19 outbreak in any school or board site.”
The Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board (BHNCDSB) sent out a Message for Families from Board Chair Rick Petrella. This message confirmed that BHNDSB will be following the same guidelines as GEDSB as it returns to full-time schooling.
“As a parent, I am pleased that a decision has been made, and with this clarity provided by the Ministry of Education, we can finalize the implementation of our opening plan,” said Petrella. “Although some may feel uncertainty around some of the elements of the Provincial government’s direction, please know that Public Health Ontario has established protocols that will be part of the plan.”
“Our Board continues to meet regularly with our local public health officials to ensure that the concerns of our students, staff, and parents are raised, and that our schools are as safe as possible for everyone. Our final ‘Return to School Plan’ … will be brought forward to the Board of Trustees at a Special Meeting of the Board on Monday, August 10, 2020 for final approval,” added Petrella. “Once that part of the process is complete, the Board will release all details to families and the community shortly thereafter. I want to thank you again for your patience and understanding during these challenging times.”
GEDSB is also in the process of finalizing its back-to-school plans, which are expected to be shared with families “by the end of next week”, said spokesperson Kimberly Newhouse.
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, said he believes that so long as cases continue to decline, appropriate health safety measures are taken, and “when considering the health of the whole child” that “schools are expected to be a safe place.”
Williams added, “We will continue to closely monitor the situation to ensure the safety of students and staff and will be prepared to transition to alternative options should circumstances change.”
To support the implementation of new health and safety protocols, the government is providing over $300 million in investments. Included in this funding is $10 million for staff training.
“Staff should be provided with a full day of training on the health and safety protocols and required adaptations before the school year begins. This training will be provided to all staff including supply/occasional teachers and casual workers,” said the Ontario government’s information page. “Joint Health and Safety Committees are required to be established, engaged, and meeting regularly to inform the reopening plan and ongoing operations.”
About $75 million has been earmarked to hire additional custodial staff and purchase cleaning supplies to keep up with the increased sanitization protocols. A Public Health Ontario document on cleaning and disinfection for public settings, which is being provided as a guideline to schools, says that frequently touched surfaces should be “cleaned and disinfected twice per day and when visibly dirty”. These surfaces include doorknobs, light switches, toilet handles, handrails, and keypads, among others. This document also notes that surfaces must be cleaned before they are disinfected, as cleaning products do not necessarily include disinfectants and surfaces must be clean of grease and organic matter before disinfectant is applied. However, it is possible to purchase “cleaner and disinfectant combined in a single product”.
The above funding is in addition to a $25 million investment in mental health and technology, which will see an additional $10 million dedicated to mental health staff, resources, and programs, as well as $15 million in technology funding to support the procurement of over 35,000 devices for Ontario’s students to support their synchronous learning in-school and beyond.
“The safety and well-being of students and staff remains our highest priority,” said Brenda Blancher, GEDSB Director of Education. “Recognizing that it’s now been nearly six months since we’ve been in the classroom together, Grand Erie will have social and emotional supports available for students in the fall as we know this will be a challenging time for all.”
MPP of Haldimand Norfolk, Toby Barrett, supports the plan as a whole: “This plan provides flexibility for parents and students while using advice from health care professionals on staying safe.”
Parents who wish to keep their children at home in September are required to contact their school board; GEDSB set a deadline of August 23. Parents or guardians of children between 0-12 years old, or up to 21 years old for children and youth with special needs, have until August 31 to apply for Support for Families, a one-time payment, per child, to purchase educational materials to support learning at home.