Ontario’s back-to-school plan: little funding for small classes or more staff
When they return to school in September, students in grades 4 to 12 will be wearing masks; elementary students will be in regular classes with no reduction in class size; and 75% of high school students will be learning online half-time.
These are the highlights of the Ontario’s plan for reopening schools in September.
Despite recommendations in a report from SickKids, the province’s plan does not include funding for smaller class sizes in elementary school, and has very little extra funding for staff such as additional teachers, guidance counsellors, social workers, psychologists and educational assistants.
Little additional funding for teaching and support staff
At the end of June, People for Education analyzed Ontario’s Grants for Student Needs for 2020/2021. We found that between 2018/19 and 2020/21, overall funding for education increased by 3.6%. When increases in enrolment (2%), salaries (1%), and inflation (1.6%) are factored in, the result was a net loss of 1%.
The province has announced some new funding for COVID-related resources, but the majority of the funding will cover increased costs for health and safety:
- $75 million for additional school custodians and enhanced cleaning supplies
- $60 million for Masks and personal protective equipment
- $50 million for up to 500 nurses to support boards with screening, testing, and managing COVID-related issues.
- $40 million for cleaning for school buses and personal protective equipment (PPE) for bus drivers
- $30 million for approximately 346 teaching postions
- $23.6 million for COVID testing
- $10 million for supports for students with special education needs
- $10 million for health and safety training for school-based staff
- $10 million for mental health supports
The lack of funding for additional staff signifies an intention to attempt to maintain as much of the status quo as possible. The result is regular class sizes in elementary schools; more than 400,000 students learning online with little extra support, and no extra funding for support staff such as Child and Youth Workers, Social Workers or Educational Assistants to support students who may struggle.
Elementary students in “bubbles” of up to 50
The school day for elementary students will be relatively unchanged. They will be in regular size classes, taught by their homeroom teacher and specialist teachers such as French teachers, arts and health and physical education teachers. The biggest difference for elementary students is that they will be “cohorted” into a group that will remain together for the day, including lunch and recess. However, these cohorts are a far cry from the groups of 15 students that had been previously envisioned. Instead, each group could have as many as 50 students and staff in it.
Three quarters of high school students will learn online
For high school students things will be different: they will be in smaller classes, but 75% of will be learning online for half the school day. In boards where students have their learning online (see list), their school day may be shortened as well. (The Toronto District School Board plan suggests that high school students will attend school from 9:10 am to 1:37 pm.)
The Ministry has said that school boards are to develop timetables for high school students that ensure that students’ direct and indirect contacts would be limited to 100 students in the school. School boards may have to implement a “quadmester” model to accomplish this – where students take two courses at a time for one quarter of the school year.
Even in boards where students attend school in person, some learning may be online
Whether learning is partly online or all face-to-face, timetabling to maintain even large cohorts of 100 students will be a challenge for high schools because students take a range of courses and electives. The Ministry acknowledges that “a range of innovative timetabling approaches” may be needed, including a study hall model, where one cohorted class may be together in one room, but taking different courses and being taught remotely by teachers in their school.
No new supports for high school students learning remotely
Ontario’s school reopening plan means that more than 450,000 students will be learning online, which the Ministry refers to as “learning at home”. For many students – particularity students who were already facing disadvantage – learning at home has not been effective, and relying on families to support their high school students’ learning is not sustainable.
There is no funding in the province’s plan to provide community spaces or support staff to assist students learning online.
Studies from the World Bank, Pathways to Education, the Centre for Global Development and many others have raised grave concerns about the disproportionate impact of school closings and the resulting online learning on lower-income, racialized students. The UN has called this a “generational catastrophe“.
…even in the best-resourced and highest-performing education systems, most COVID responses in education will end up by privileging better-off children. Students from households with greater levels of connectivity, higher levels of parental education, greater availability of parental time for engagement, and in-home availability of books and materials have much better ability to access and benefit from distance learning.
Online curriculum still under development
When schools were closed in the spring, teachers developed their own strategies to deliver curriculum online. The Ministry says that it now has a catalogue of more than 125 online courses in English and French, and that 10 new courses will be a added in September with a further 10 to be added in January. The reopening guide also explains that students can access courses through the TVO Independent Learning Centre. School boards must approve students’ enrolment in the Independent Learning Centre courses, and they must pay a fee to TVO.
Safety plans unclear
Many questions remain:
- If a teacher becomes ill with COVID, will all the students and staff they have come in contact with be required to isolate at home?
- If high school student “bubbles” have 100 students and staff at school, will these students be asked to limit their contacts outside school hours?
- If a student is sick, but undiagnosed, will all the families in that student’s cohort be notified?
- Will there be sufficient numbers of teachers to teach students online and in person?
- One of the reasons for the rapid spread of COVID in long-term care facilities was that personal support workers traveled between many facilities. Will supply teachers be restricted from moving from school to school as they do now?