Hamilton

Hamilton teachers and school boards have questions about reopening. So do you. Here are some

After the Ford government announced Ontario's plan for reopening schools in September, students, parents, teachers, school boards and unions have been left with more questions than answers.

Grade 3/4 split classes, outbreaks, and time used to wash hands are all potential issues for reopening schools

Hamilton union leaders have questions about how the province will ensure schools open safely. (Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

After the Ford government announced Ontario's plan for reopening schools in September, students, parents, teachers, school boards and unions have been left with more questions than answers.

CBC Hamilton asked the Ministry of Education, local unions and school boards some of those questions.

HWDSB and the Catholic board did not respond to comment, but did send a letter to the ministry, expressing concern about the high school reopening strategy and a lack of funding.

The plan leaves many practical details either unresolved or in the hands of local boards and individual schools.

Local unions leaders told CBC News they didn't have the answers because it has asked many of the same questions as the ones below.

These reflect questions raised by parents, teachers and others and expressed in story comments and social media.

If there is an outbreak, does the whole class or the whole school have to quarantine?

There doesn't appear to be a direct answer to this question. HWDSB has said it is planning its outbreak protocol, which may involve shutting down the school and reverting to online learning only.

Ontario's guide to reopening schools states that schools must immediately report any suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the school to the local public health unit.

In doing so, it must hand over materials (attendance and transportation records, etc.) to public health officials. The school would also need to support case management and contact tracing. Staff should be trained on all outbreak protocol.

From there, it's unclear how the school responds. Outbreak protocol is being finalized by the Ministry of the Solicitor General and Ministry of Health, in consultation with local health authorities.

With existing contractual limits to teacher supervision time, how will schools manage all the extra supervision required before, during and after school?

Additional supervision needs will also be created by changes to lunch locations, staggered recess times and staggered travel times between periods and extra demands before and after school. Teacher contracts limit how much supervision they can do each week.

The ministry's response to this question was to highlight that it is investing $80 million for staffing across the province. It's unclear how much of that money will go to school boards in Hamilton or what that staffing is.

The guide to reopening also states before-and-after-school programming will be available and students in these programs would be part of two cohorts.

School boards are encouraged to develop supply teacher lists for when teachers or staff complete their daily self-screening and choose to stay home. Will there be enough supply teachers?

Unions, teachers and school boards have said hiring more staff will be vital.

What's the plan for the excess students who don't fit in the classroom as per distancing requirements?

The ministry's response to this question is identical to the one above.

But the guide to reopening also indicates pre-registration of students attending school, which the province encourages, may also be important in avoiding excess students.

School boards are allowed to wait-list students and families who do not pre-register by a cut-off time established by the board. Boards will be able to offer these students and families remote learning until an appropriate class placement can be provided.

They can also set restrictions on the ability of students to transfer between remote learning and in class learning.

Schools in Ontario will reopen in September. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Why is it only up to parents to screen their children?

Parents are expected to screen their children daily, with a set of questions from their school boards.

The ministry said it is hiring up to 500 public health nurses that would help support local health protocols like screening. It's unclear how many will be in the Hamilton area.

There's no word on what happens when parents don't screen or send their children to school even if the screening shows they shouldn't. There's also no indication on how that will be policed or by whom.

How will schools safely manage the use of school buses?

The government has said students will be assigned seats and the seating plan will help with contact tracing. Students in the same cohort or household are advised to sit together.

Bus drivers and other helpers will get medical masks and eye protection. The seats behind the driver will be empty. The bus will be cleaned twice a day.

The ministry is still determining how it will manage special transportation needs for students who require accommodations or have weaker immune systems.

The busing system was already under strain because of a shortage of drivers, so its not clear how fewer students on an already overtaxed busing system will work. The boards are encouraging parents to find alternatives to busing.

How does mandatory masking work in a 3/4 split class?

The ministry said the answer is simple — Grade 3 students don't wear masks and Grade 4 students do.

But the province is encouraging students beneath Grade 4 to wear masks inside.

Hamilton's indoor masking by-law also lists schools as an exception to the rule.

How will schools manage the time it takes for everyone to wash their hands?

The ministry said it will be up to local school boards to figure this out.

Having adequate hand sanitizer for students and staff in classrooms could prevent the need to find the nearest sink and wash one's hands.

HWDSB said it would have regular handwashing breaks.

Who will supervise students in washrooms if that is where they have to go to wash their hands?

Social circles or social bubbles set by the government won't hold up with school cohorting. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press )

How do you maintain social circles/bubbles of 10 people if kids have cohorts?

It's unclear that social bubbles can be maintained if students are in cohorts of 15 or 30.

The government maintains on top of cohorting, schools will employ many other measures like reinforced handwashing, one-way hallways and other protocol to keep people socially distanced.

Why will elementary school students only need to be one metre apart and not two?

Class sizes in elementary schools are not changing so rooms will be as full of kids as before the pandemic.

The provincial plan does not say elementary school students will only need to be one metre apart.

With that, there have been concerns from parents about how schools will keep students far enough away from each other.

A SickKids report mentioned one metre would be OK, which has spurred discussion about whether it might not be such a problem.

Local school boards have listed a number of ways to keep students at bay including restricting entry and exit doors and movement during break periods. Kids will stay in their assigned class for the entire day. Teachers will also be doing most of the moving around school instead of students.

What are the protocols for using shared equipment like musical instruments or physical education equipment?

The province says the elementary curriculum will be taught in full, but there are logistical questions about how teachers will be able to sanitize shared equipment like musical instruments and sports equipment.

There's no outline on how to do this effectively, where the time will come from or how it will work at the school level.

While saying the curriculum will be delivered in full, teachers are also being asked to program in ways that minimize the use of shared items, which would impact programming.

The government also says that most overall expectations for music classes can be met without the use of instruments in both the elementary and secondary arts curriculum.

Gymnasiums will only be used where physical distancing measures can be followed and change rooms will have limits on capacity.

Overall health needs

While there are still many unanswered questions, Michelle Baird, director of healthy and safe communities at Hamilton Public Health said opening schools is critical.

"From an overall health perspective, schools and social functions play a large role in their mental health," she said.

"It's a new environment with new control measures in place and I think it's right we've got those cautions in place because we don't know what's going to happen with the second wave and we also don't know what going to happen with respiratory virus season anyway."

School is starting in September, which is roughly a month away, but Baird said "just because we don't have a lot of time doesn't mean we won't get the right planning done." 

She said some of the most important precautions families can take are practicing proper handwashing and not letting kids attend school if they don't feel well.

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