Hamilton public school board still has no outbreak protocol, needs $76M for smaller classes

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is still waiting to answer some questions from parents asking about the plan for COVID-19 outbreaks but says other requests like smaller classes in elementary schools won't be possible because of a lack of government funding.

Hamliton-Wentworth District School Board says it didn't get enough money to shrink elementary classes

Students line up outside a school in Germany. HWDSB unveiled some updated plans for schools come September but said the province didn't give it enough money for some things, like smaller elementary school classes. (Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images)

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is still unable to answer questions from parents asking about the plan for dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks but says that other requests like smaller classes in elementary schools won't be possible.

The board suggests part of that lies on the provincial government.

In an executive report released on Monday, the board provided an update on its re-opening plan during COVID-19, much of which doesn't have answers to the many of the specific questions from families.

The report opens with a letter of concern from parents Earl Kitchener Elementary School.

They listed demands like classes with 15 or fewer students, replacing water fountains with water bottle filling stations and having bathrooms cleaned at least four times a day. It even asked HWDSB to consider reopening two to three weeks behind schedule.

The board's report also shows changes like the requests from parents would cost money it doesn't have.

The report says it would need $76 million to hire the 900 teachers needed to sustain elementary classes with 15 students (The $76 million assumes each new teaching job is worth roughly $84,444 a year).

"We do need answers to 'Will there be additional funds to hire additioanl teachers,' because that will have implications for our planning," Peter Sovran, HWDSB'S associate director of learning services, told CBC.

"We need the time to be able to implement that."

It also notes the entire province of Ontario got just $30 million and right now, HWDSB can only get new teachers as needed through an application basis.

The board did get some money though. It received $1.2 million for 22 full-time equivalent caretakers, $334,000 toward mental health supports, $199,000 for local special education needs and $96,000 for cleaning supplies.

HWDSB will be able to hire 22 full-time equivalent caregivers. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

HWDSB is still waiting on money for health and safety training for occasional and casual staff, mask and personal protective equipment (PPE) funding, and busing, which it already complained about.

Right now, HWDSB has enough PPE for the first month of school on hand. Sovran said the board "won't be scrambling" for any PPE, but said it is still trying to determine how busing will roll out.

It is also waiting to hear how many public health nurses it will receive to help with screening and other COVID-19 procedures.

And, it is waiting for the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education to confirm COVID-19 outbreak plans, but HWDSB said it is consulting other area school boards to have a standardized approach and is currently working on how it would communicate an outbreak.

"We know there is tremendous angst out there for the outbreak protocol to be completed. We're anxious to have it completed," Sovran said.

"It's absolutely a top priority … the moment we have it, everyone else will have it."

High school plans 'extraordinarily complicated'

In high schools, which have students attending school on an alternating, rotating schedule, each new month will see a week of online learning before face-to-face classes resume.

"Based on the 2020-21 secondary school year calendar and the current advice from Hamilton Public Health to allow for at least 5 school days of turnaround time before the introduction of a new in-person cohort, each rotation for a 4-period secondary school will consist of 17 in-person instructional days," reads the report.

For example, when school starts on Sept. 8, students will only have their first period and break (which lasts 145 minutes) in class. The other three periods (40 minutes each) will be remote. That will last between Sept. 8 and Sept. 30 (17 days). Then, at the urging of Hamilton Public Health Services, all classes will be taught remotely (four periods, 75 minutes each) between Nov. 3 and 9 (five days) before second period becomes the in-person session for November.

That means the board wouldn't meet the province's requirement that face-to-face time accounts for 50 per cent of student's learning because of the five-day buffer, but Sovran said the province didn't take issue with it because it was a recommendation from public health.

He added that more face time would have led to a higher number of indirect encounters with students, increasing the chance of COVID-19 spread.

The schedule for five-periods is similar, but offers even less in-class time.

Students and parents have expressed concerns about online learning, but those who want to do full e-learning courses should tell their school during the week of Aug. 31 and Sept. 4

Sovran said the current model allows the board to make adjustments on the fly, while maximizing safety for all, honouring collective agreements and making sure students can still choose their own courses.

He described it as a puzzle.

"Sometimes you might have a solution that adheres to the greatest safety measures ... by infringing on collective agreements," he said.

The first version of plans appeared to do just that, but Sovran said the board worked closely with the union to maintain safety and believes it can be done while complying  with contracts. He added that the unions have been helpful during this reopening process.

Updates for elementary schools

The elementary school class schedule will also have to undergo changes before and after September because the province has said any students who opt for online learning will receive a full day of learning from from a dedicated teacher who is not their assigned, in-person classroom teacher.

Parents of elementary students will need to use the board's Parent Portal between Aug. 17 and 21 to indicate if they want their child to attend school in-person or do remote learning.

Those who choose remote and want to switch into face-to-face classes can only do so if there's enough space. They can also only jump back in on select days (October 13, January 4 and March 22).

Parents of Kindergarten kids will receive more details but HWDSB says for now, the start of this school year entry for first year kindergarten students will be staggered over the week of Sept. 8 and 11.

More summer programs for students

HWDSB also has an extensive list of mental health supports for students and caregivers. It also shows off some of the signs and posters that will appear in schools, which now includes age-appropriate language.

HWDSB has updated its COVID-19 signs to include age-appropriate language. (HWDSB)

The board has also added new specialized summer learning programs, some of which are online and others are face-to-face, though many of these are for students with individual education plans (IEPs) or students with special learning needs.

HWDSB noted it is working with Fire Services to have hand sanitizer available at entry points to the school and still follow Fire Code. That also means students bringing hand sanitizer can only bring bottles 60 ml or less.

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Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.


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