OCDSB to delay school start until Sept. 8

Trustees at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board voted Tuesday night to delay the start of the school year until Sept. 8,  but rejected a plan to require masks for students in kindergarten to Grade 3.

Trustees reject plan to require masks for younger students, vote to encourage their use instead

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board sign at its main building on Greenbank Road. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

The first day of school will be delayed for students at Ottawa's English-language public schools.

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) trustees voted Tuesday night to push back the start of the school year until Sept. 8, citing the need to allow more time for parents, teachers and administrators to prepare for the return of students.

The vote took place during a five-hour meeting where trustees also rejected a plan to require younger students to wear masks.

Elementary and secondary schools were originally supposed to start welcoming all students back to the classroom  Sept. 3, but the school board announced last week a staggered schedule over the first two weeks.

Trustees who supported delaying the start of the school year said they were worried that teachers — who have yet to be assigned to specific classes — wouldn't have time to prepare lesson plans and strategies for implementing new health and safety protocols. Trustees also cited the fact that school buses won't start running until Sept. 14.

Ottawa's largest English-language public school board stopped short of mandating masks for students in kindergarten to Grade 3, but is strongly encouraging they wear them in the classroom. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

"I'm hearing from lots of people, mainly teachers, who have indicated to me that they feel they simply won't be ready after three days of preparations, which includes some professional development," said Barrhaven/Knoxdale-Merivale trustee Donna Blackburn, who presented the motion to delay.

"They need time to get into their classes, get the lay of the land, understand all the protocols."

Blackburn's original motion called for the start date to be pushed back to Sept. 14, which would have aligned it with the start of the bus schedule, but trustees amended the motion to Sept. 8.

Director of education Camille Williams-Taylor told trustees that board staff preferred to begin the staggered entry on that date, with the goal of having all students in the class by Sept. 18.

"The way that we make this work is through a staggered entry," said Williams-Taylor. "A progressive entry is absolutely necessary in order for us to be able to launch with surety, confidence and safety and to have all the pieces in place."

Not all trustees on board

Some trustees objected to the Sept. 8 date, saying it would disadvantage rural students and others without access to transportation during the first week of school. Board staff said delaying further could lead to complications with achieving the required number of teaching days in the school year.

The delay is the latest change to an unprecedented school year that will see just under one-quarter of students at the city's largest school board staying home to do their learning online.

Those who do attend school in person will encounter a dizzying array of new rules and restrictions meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including mandatory masks for older students, physical distancing and enhanced handwashing.

Masks to be 'encouraged,' not mandatory for K-3

Trustees also debated a motion on Tuesday that would have extended a mask mandate to include students in kindergarten to Grade 3. The existing rule says all students in grades 4 to 12 must wear masks while indoors, including in hallways and classrooms.

But trustees softened the language from "require" to "encourage" — a move that virtually keeps the status quo in place given that the province uses the exact same language in its back-to-school plan.

Trustees wanted to avoid heavy-handed enforcement of the rule for younger children.

In a video update provided to the board, medical officer of health Vera Etches said Ottawa Public Health (OPH) couldn't quantify the benefit that mandatory masks for younger students would have on reducing the transmission of COVID-19.

Nonetheless, Etches said there is evidence that widespread mask usage in the general population has been effective.

Students returning to school in September will encounter a dizzying array of new rules and regulations, including mask-wearing, physical distancing and constant handwashing. (Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images)

"OPH recommends that younger children should not be discouraged from wearing masks if they are tolerated and if they are able to wear them properly," Etches said in her message. "Ensuring proper mask size and fit and allowing a child to become accustomed to wearing a mask at home before wearing one in public may increase tolerance of mask wearing."

Etches appeared to recommend against making mask-wearing mandatory for kindergarten to Grade 3 students in written answers provided to supplement her video message.

"While masking K to grade 3 is likely to be beneficial, a decision on making masking in this age group mandatory should be made only after gaining experience," Etches wrote. "With age appropriate education regarding the benefits of masking and strong environmental supports in place, we can learn from the experience of voluntary compliance."

In making the case for the motion, trustee Lyra Evans said younger students would be able to pick up mask-wearing despite concerns that they're too young to use masks properly.

"There is ample evidence to show that young children model the behaviour of those around them," said Evans.

Board staff did confirm that there will be plastic shields separating all students in kindergarten to Grade 3 when they are sitting at their desks.

Teachers yet to be assigned

In an update on the board's preparations for the school year, Williams-Taylor told trustees the board had completed its confirmation of enrolment survey, which asked parents to indicate whether their children would be opting for online learning or if they would be coming into class.

Williams-Taylor said a total of 22 per cent of the student body — or 16,000 students — opted for remote learning. Those students will be divided into six virtual elementary schools and one secondary school, Williams-Taylor said.

"Every effort is being made to place all students from one elementary school in the same virtual school," she said.

Now that the board knows which students will be learning virtually and which will be coming to school, a massive effort to assign teachers is underway. Teachers were asked to express interest in remote learning.

"We're giving teachers an option to indicate an interest if that is where they would like to pursue their assignment," Williams-Taylor said. "Staff are returning to work while awaiting confirmation of their teaching assignment."

Williams-Taylor gave no update on the average class sizes for various grades, but she did pledge that the board is doing its best to keep them as low as possible given the circumstances.

In response to a question from trustee Justine Bell, Williams-Taylor said the board will attempt to keep class sizes smaller in neighbourhoods that OPH has identified as having higher-than-average rates of COVID-19.

Williams-Taylor added that the province has shipped a number of orders of personal protective equipment designated for staff and students in OCDSB schools.