Premier de­fends back-to-school strat­egy

Ap­proach seems to clash with fed guide­lines

National Post (National Edition) - - CANADA - MICHELLE MCQUIGGE

TORONTO • On­tario’s premier stood by the prov­ince’s back-to-school plans on Tues­day as fed­eral of­fi­cials of­fered up COVID-19-preven­tion guide­lines that ap­peared to con­tra­dict those re­vealed by provin­cial of­fi­cials last week.

Doug Ford’s com­ments came as On­tario’s 72 pub­licly funded school boards worked on firm­ing up their pro­pos­als to wel­come stu­dents back to class. While most of those plans have yet to be fi­nal­ized, a draft set of guide­lines from the coun­try’s largest school board sug­gests sports won’t be a part of the up­com­ing aca­demic year.

The Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment has come un­der fire since it un­veiled its vi­sion for the com­ing school year last week. The plan will see stu­dents in kinder­garten through Grade 8 return to school with­out any re­duc­tion in class sizes, though stu­dents will spend the day in a sin­gle co­hort to limit con­tact with other pupils.

Most high school­ers will also be in class full-time, though stu­dents at two dozen boards across the prov­ince will take half their cour­ses online in a bid to curb the spread of the novel coro­n­avirus. Masks will be manda­tory for those in Grade 4 and up, while those in Grade 3 and be­low will be en­cour­aged but not re­quired to wear them.

Both fed­eral pub­lic health of­fi­cials and a panel of ex­perts from leading On­tario pe­di­atric hos­pi­tals have said phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing is a nec­es­sary com­po­nent of any back-to-school plan, but Ford said Tues­day the prov­ince’s cur­rent ap­proach is grounded in sci­ence and well-able to pro­tect stu­dents and staff alike.

“It’s not 'our’ plan — we went with some of the bright­est minds in the world,” Ford said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in Beamsville, Ont. “They’ve come up with a plan. I re­spect their plan. They’re the ex­perts. But for the par­ents who are ner­vous, I un­der­stand.”

On­tario par­ents have not hes­i­tated to voice their con­cerns in the days since the plan was re­leased last Thurs­day, say­ing the crowded class­rooms al­ready preva­lent across much of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem will limit the abil­ity to prac­tise phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing.

Canada’s chief pub­lic health of­fi­cer, Dr. Theresa Tam, also ap­peared to high­light the im­por­tance of pre­serv­ing per­sonal space at schools dur­ing a Tues­day brief­ing on the na­tional COVID-19 re­sponse.

“Ar­range your school en­vi­ron­ment, phys­i­cally and oth­er­wise, so that phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing can hap­pen,” Tam said. “En­sure that the num­ber of con­tacts chil­dren and teach­ers have is min­i­mized.”

The ex­pert panel whose ad­vice formed the ba­sis of the On­tario gov­ern­ment’s plan has en­cour­aged phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing when­ever pos­si­ble, though with some vari­a­tions on the now-fa­mil­iar pub­lic health ad­vice.

Dr. Chuck Hui of the Ot­tawa-based Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal of Eastern On­tario pre­vi­ously said a dis­tance of one me­tre in­stead of two might be enough among el­e­men­tary-school stu­dents, though two me­tres is still ideal among older kids.

Other mea­sures con­tained in the gov­ern­ment plan, such as the wide­spread return to full-time, in-per­son learn­ing and the use of masks, com­ply with the guide­lines re­leased by CHEO and Toronto’s Hos­pi­tal for Sick Chil­dren.

Sick­Kids did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quest for com­ment on the de­gree of com­pli­ance in the prov­ince’s back-to-school strat­egy.

The Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion, mean­while, said it is work­ing with school boards to fi­nal­ize and ap­prove de­tailed return-to-class plans, not­ing that task should be com­pleted by the end of the week.

A pre­lim­i­nary ver­sion of one such plan from the Toronto District School Board spells out some of the changes com­ing in September.

High school classes, for in­stance, will be de­liv­ered via so-called “quad-mesters” — four terms con­sist­ing of two cour­ses a piece.

The TDSB is one of the provin­cially des­ig­nated boards that will be al­low­ing sec­ondary-school stu­dents to take half their classes online, with cour­ses taught in-per­son one week be­ing de­liv­ered virtually the next.

The board’s plan also states that stu­dents will have to do with­out lock­ers or school-based sports un­til fur­ther no­tice.

Dr. Bar­bara Yaffe, On­tario’s as­so­ciate chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health, said the pro­posal struck her as “rea­son­able.”

IT’S NOT ‘OUR’ PLAN — WE WENT WITH SOME OF THE BRIGHT­EST MINDS IN THE

WORLD.

NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

On­tario Premier Doug Ford says that top minds were con­sulted in de­sign­ing the gov­ern­ment’s plan for a safe re­open­ing of schools in the fall. “They’ve come up with a plan,” says Ford. “I re­spect their plan. They’re the ex­perts.”

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