Teachers and parents concerned about Ontario's back-to-school plan

Teachers and parents say they are concerned and conflicted about heading back to school with full class sizes and key details missing in the province's plan.

London teacher says her colleagues 'are not feeling safe right now'

Elementary school students outside of the greater Montreal region returned to class last spring. Next month, children across Ontario will allowed to go back to school. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

London teachers and parents say they're worried and conflicted about the province's back-to-school plan, with a return to in-class teaching now just four weeks away.

The Ford government has said elementary students will return to full class sizes, though parents with concerns about sending their kids back to school can keep them home for online learning. 

But a group of London teachers and parents who spoke to CBC News say the plan doesn't follow all the physical distancing recommendations put forward by SickKids hospital.

Toronto public health has raised a number of red flags about the province's plan, and similar concerns are being expressed by both parents and educators in London. 

Teaching music ... with no singing?

Abbey McIntosh is a music teacher at Sir John A. Macdonald Public School in east London. 

During a regular school year, students from all grades would rotate through her classroom to study music theory, sing and play instruments. 

But COVID-19 restrictions mean singing is out and McIntosh has been told she'll be travelling into each classroom instead of the students coming to her well-appointed music room. The use of instruments could also be limited.

McIntosh says she's concerned for the safety of her colleagues and students.  (Submitted by Abbey McIntosh)

She's trying to figure out how it will all work, but says the details are sparse. 

"There hasn't been clear communication as to what teaching music will look like," she said. "I'm worried about no singing because that's basically my primary program." 

Even using stringed instruments brings up challenges. One example: How do you sanitize a set of 30 guitars between classes or even haul them from class to class? 

McIntosh worries her program might wind up limited to listening to recorded music and chalkboard lessons on theory. 

"I'm trying to be as creative as possible," she said. One teacher suggested she use chopsticks or pens in place of drumsticks for lessons on percussion.

McIntosh doesn't blame the Thames Valley District School Board for the lack of information. She believes they're doing their best to execute the comeback plan laid down by the province. 

"It's the province's plan and it's not as clear and concise as it needs to be," she said.

Because she typically teaches 14 classes across the school's eight grades, she's potentially exposing herself to more than 400 students each day. 

"If I got sick I don't know what would happen to the classes I've been in contact with," she said. 

McIntosh went into her school last week to re-string the guitars in case they wind up being used. Cleaning crews have been through the school, giving it a much different feel. 

"The classrooms look different than they have in the past," she said. "All the carpets have been removed. So the classrooms are pretty barren in comparison to previous years."

But her main concern is the safety of her colleagues and the students. 

"Education workers are not feeling safe right now," she said. "There's a lot of frustration and confusion and no solid answers from our government." 

Parents concerned about class sizes

Amanda Gallant-Turner, shown here with her two boys nine-year-old Oliver (right), and Finn (left), who is seven. She wishes the province's back to school plan included a lower cap on class sizes. (Submitted by Amanda Gallant-Turner)

Amanda Gallant-Turner has two boys in elementary school and is concerned the province's plan didn't include a reduction in class sizes. 

Her oldest son, who is in Grade 5, has a history of pneumonia, putting him at higher risk for complications should he become infected with COVID-19. 

She's also worried about the boys' grandparents who have compromised immune systems. 

"He's aware of his own health issues and he knows kids will be kids, rules will slip," she said. "He's very concerned about his grandparents." 

Staying home full time? Not an option

Katy Davies's twin girls are set to start Grade 1 this year. She was hoping the province would opt for the hybrid model, where classes would be split with each half alternating between classroom and home learning. 

"I thought the announcement of school starting or not was going to alleviate some anxiety for me, but it's just kind of shifted it," she said. 

Davies and her husband do shift work, so online learning isn't an easy option with potential scheduling headaches. 

Katy Davies with her twins Lillian and Violet and husband Steve Boyd. She doesn't have the option of not working this fall and worries about how COVID-19 protocols might impair the learning of her girls who are entering Grade 1. (Supplied by Katy Davies)

"We're not in a financial position to choose not to send them to school," she said. 

In order to minimize their time at school and potential exposure to COVID-19, she considered having the kids home when she's working nights, essentially using the school as a daycare. But even if she could work out the complicated scheduling, she worries this would break up the flow in the class and cause problems for teachers already forced to juggle so many plates.

Grade 1 is a time when kids work on physical skills, like writing. 

"Are they going to be able to do that with physical distancing? I think a lot of that is going to have to fall on the parents," Davies said.