The pandemic back-to-school plans of the Ontario government and the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) have caused concern for one of the unions representing local teachers and support staff.

Adrienne McEwen is the Teacher President for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), representing 700 full-time teachers in Eastern Ontario.  She said that as of August 12, the board was still working on its draft plan for allowing students to return to the classroom or learn online from home.  According to McEwen, a previous draft plan the UCDSB had developed for the return to school did not adequately address concerns involving sufficient physical distancing and the need to ensure school ventilation systems do not contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

“What are we going to do a month from now?” asked McEwen.

On August 13, Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce announced nearly $500 million in funding to assist school boards with distancing and ventilation improvements, and requiring 75 per cent of a student’s school day to be spent online, if their parents choose to have them learn from home.  However, the OSSTF responded by saying that the funding was insufficient.

McEwen is concerned that class sizes in the UCDSB will be too large to safely allow physical distancing of two metres.  She said that the class size in the UCDSB is being capped at 23 students, but classes are being limited to just 15 students in 22 other, primarily urban school boards.  McEwen is questioning why urban boards are making things safer by having smaller classes.

Other considerations in how boards are planning their school year include their collective agreements with unions.  McEwen noted that some classes will be smaller than 23, depending on the subject.  She used shop and technology courses as an example of smaller classes.

McEwen questioned how the UCDSB will develop the cohorts, or groups of students that will remain together during all school activities.  She questioned how schools will be able to maintain separate entrances for each cohort when some schools only have two ways of entering and exiting.

According to McEwen, the UCDSB had still not defined what its safe distance would be between students and staff.  She said that the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board had already chosen two metres as its distance.

Overall, McEwen is calling on the UCDSB to “do what is needed to make it safe.”

School boards in Ontario are prohibited by law from running budget deficits.  However, McEwen suggested that the law be relaxed in order to allow boards to undertake the extra spending to improve health and safety during the pandemic.