Hamilton school boards considering a phased reopening during COVID-19

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is "seriously considering" a staggered start to school reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Catholic board is doing the same.

Both boards predict at least 10 per cent of students will do online learning, may help reduce class sizes

A number of children raise their hands in a classroom.
Hamilton school boards may slow down the reopening of schools to help students understand COVID-19 protocols. (GagliardiPhotography/Shutterstock)

Hamilton's public and Catholic school boards are considering a phased start to school reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manny Figueiredo, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board director of education, told CBC school boards received an email from the province Tuesday night giving it the authority to opt for a staggered or phased start in schools over the first week or two to work on safety protocols.

The senior teams at HWDSB are discussing those plans Wednesday and may make an announcement on Monday about whether or not a gradual re-entry into schools will occur.

It's unclear what a staggered or phased approach would look like. That could mean different grades starting at different times. It could even be half the class coming in on certain days to learn the safety protocol.

"It's something we're seriously considering at least for the first week. When I think out loud, we have high school, we have Grade 9 students who have never been in high school yet ... I'm also looking in elementary, we haven't had kids there and if we're going to work on training the safety protocols, would it be better for teachers to do that in smaller groups over a period of time? Before everyone comes back?" he wonders.

Pay Daly, chair of Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, said his board is also considering the option and said it is a "positive move."

"Clearly the staggered approach, or at least announcement by government to do that, is a positive thing. More time, more flexibility and more options is a benefit.

Figueiredo added that staff are already doing something akin to a phased re-entry with principals and vice-principals training next week and teachers training the week after.

Daly said it will send a recommendation to the Ministry of Education by Friday with its decision on staggered start, but the public board will have an answer for parents on Monday.

It's another promise for more answers in the near future as families have complained aabout reopening plans that raise more questions than they answer. For one, both boards are still waiting to develop COVID-19 outbreak plans. But with only 20 days left before school starts, Figueiredo hopes Monday may answer some major questions.

"We've been asked by trustees, 'What reserves of money do we have? And how many current empty spaces do we have in schools? And what would staff recommend potentially if you want to try to lower class sizes in one area, what would be the impact?" he explained.

"It'll be nowhere near the 15 number that people have in their head."

Union wants government to do more

Daly predicts more than 10 per cent of HWCDSB students will do online learning and Figueiredo said that right now HWDSB's prediction is 15 per cent of students will do online learning, which may free up more space in schools and could allow them to reduce class sizes.

"The only way to resource that is for the board to look at reserves," he said.

"The second way is the Ministry of Education has sent us $30 million for the entire province to access ... not a lot of money to add additional teachers.

Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local, told CBC it's sad to see the board having to dip into their own backup funds.

"It is regretful that it had to come to this," he said.

"A board should not have to decide to spend money meant for valid and needed educational resources in order to keep people safe. Safety should be funded through the province and the ministry."

Nick de Koning, the local Ontario English Catholic Teacher's Association president for Hamilton-Wentworth, echoed Sorensen's concerns, but has some optimism.

"The Ford government has given the boards and all the educational partners the impossible task of reopening schools with not enough time, too little money and too many unanswered questions, but [the staggered start] at least buys some time for all of those things," he said.

"A staggered start is one small action that can at least provide a safer start to September."


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.