OCDSB endorses back-to-school plans despite 'navigating without a map'

Trustees with Ottawa's largest school board endorsed high-level reopening plans at a special meeting, but some worried about giving their stamp of approval with so many questions unanswered.

Much depends on province's decision on school format

A empty classroom is pictured in Vancouver, B.C. in March. With six weeks until school starts, Ontario school boards are making plans without knowing what model the Ontario government will roll out. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Trustees with Ottawa's largest school board endorsed high-level reopening plans at a special meeting Tuesday night, but some worried about giving their stamp of approval with so many questions unanswered.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) is trying to build up its pool of casual teachers and bolster its online learning for September, even though no one knows for sure what a return to school during a pandemic will look like.

Directors and superintendents tried to answer trustees' questions during a meeting that ended at midnight, but said repeatedly they're missing key pieces of information.

They can't yet know how many parents will choose to have their children learn from home or how staffing levels could fluctuate.

But the biggest question is which of three formats the Ontario government will dictate for a return to school: full time in class, remote learning, or a hybrid of the two. Its decision is expected Aug. 4.

The board has said it wants students back five days a week.

"This is a moving scenario," said OCDSB director of education Camille Williams-Taylor, who said the board gets new information weekly. "Time is not on our side."  

Board chair Lynn Scott agreed they were "navigating without a map" but that every school board in Ontario is doing the same thing.

'Parents can't wait anymore'

Seven trustees endorsed the plans for reopening schools that board staff will now put before the Ministry of Education.

But two trustees opposed and two abstained, worried about giving their stamp of approval with so many questions unanswered.

Trustee Chris Ellis was frustrated and wanted another chance to debate in greater detail what each scenario might look like, so families could better decide whether to send their children back.

"We've been waiting three, four months for the province. Parents can't wait anymore. This is ridiculous," Ellis said.

Wendy Hough voted in favour, but worried teachers won't have time to prepare with just three training days scheduled before school starts.

"Three days doesn't seem like enough time for me to even clean the closets in my house, so I'm not sure how it's enough time for them to figure out how to keep children safe in this incredibly bizarre world we find ourselves in," she said. 

Mask protocol to come

Staff did manage to shed light on some points.

Williams-Taylor said a protocol about students wearing masks would not come from the local board, but centrally from the Ministry of Education.

OCDSB's director of education says a protocol about whether children will have to wear masks at school and in which situations will be a Ministry of Education decision. (Oksana Kuzmina/Adobe Stock)

In a hybrid model, in which most students would split their time between learning at home and at school, the board would aim to have some students attend nearly full time, such as special education classes and students with missed high school credits.

For those children who opt to learn from home, the board is preparing a far more structured day than the emergency version of the spring, with some real-time instruction and chances to virtually interact with their peers.

Trustee Mark Fisher, a father of three, was glad to hear the board was making the curriculum friendly to online learning in case COVID-19 requires everyone to "backslide."

No matter what, he sees a difficult year ahead.

"I think going into the pandemic we knew that schools and classes were stretched and strained … in incredible ways, and the pandemic is only going to add to that," he said.

$1B budget for 2020-2021

Earlier in the evening, board staff also proposed a budget for the coming school year totalling slightly over $1 billion. That involves running a deficit of $17 million, which will require special approval by the minister.

An extra $4 million is allotted for the unusual expenses of reopening schools during COVID-19, possibly for personal protective equipment or extra staffing.

"The threshold to send somebody home is very low now," chief financial officer Mike Carson said. "We may find that amount has been underestimated."

Several trustees were concerned about setting a budget when the costs should vary depending on which return-to-school model the province mandates.

The budget came together much later than usual and must be passed by September 1.

The OCDSB will debate the budget and hear from the public at meetings on August 11, 13, and 18.

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