With school back in session, parents and teachers decry classrooms 'bursting at the seams'

With a new school year now underway, the debate over the safety of large class sizes has returned, with some parents and teachers decrying classrooms with 30-40 students amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 continues to exacerbate concerns about overcrowded classrooms

A teacher in Montreal arranges desks in late August. With the new school year now underway, the debate over the safety of large class sizes has returned amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

With a new school year now underway, the debate over the safety of large class sizes has returned, with some parents and teachers across Canada decrying classrooms with 30 to 40 students amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In planning for the fall, Melanie Aumont said she'd already felt anxious about enrolling her two sons — one in junior kindergarten and the other in Grade 3 — for in-person learning in Ottawa.

"Then to learn that that environment is basically bursting at the seams … it's not acceptable," said Aumont. "It's very scary for me.… All we want to do as parents is protect our kids."

In Nova Scotia, "everybody's watching back to school closely to see what happens with epidemiology," said Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, since students under 12 aren't yet approved to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Even before the pandemic, the province was grappling with large class sizes, he said; it wasn't uncommon to see about 40 students taking certain compulsory high school courses, for instance, or elementary schools in high-growth neighbourhoods having classrooms with six to seven students above established guidelines. 

It usually takes a month or so before "formal steps are taken" to bring large classes into compliance, said Wozney.

Students are shown at Ottawa's Franco-Cité Catholic High School this month. (CBC)

But large classes are "a double-whammy concern" amid COVID-19, said Wozney, piled on top of worries about the one-on-one attention students might be missing from their teachers.

"The larger the class sizes, the more at risk students and staff in those crowded classrooms are of catching COVID-19 at a time that many students can't be vaccinated," he said.

The concern is further compounded by outstanding ventilation concerns for many Nova Scotia schools and the province's plan to lift indoor mask mandates early next month as it enters its final stage of re-opening.

"Class size becomes a pandemic issue, simply because of how many kids we have in each classroom and how poorly ventilated those rooms are," he said.

In British Columbia, high school teacher Annie Ohana is hearing about crowded classrooms from parents and colleagues, as well as seeing them herself. 

"I don't have the smallest classroom in the school, but [with] Grade 11 and 12s in there, it's pretty crowded — and they're sitting quite close together, because there's just no other way to fit that many kids," said the Surrey, B.C., teacher.

"You might have 31 kids, or whatever the number might be, and all admin can do is just try their best to find spaces for everybody.… That's not good enough when you're realizing that this is in the middle of a pandemic and that we're seeing the delta variant attack those younger ages."

Both Wozney and Ohana would like to see their respective provincial education ministries be more proactive in finding ways to reduce class sizes. 

Wozney, for instance, would like to see additional physical spaces procured, so new, smaller classes can be created and students have room to spread out.

During a protest in Surrey, B.C., in late August, parents and educators called for remote learning options, vaccine mandates and other school-related safety measures. (Janella Hamilton/CBC)

"We would rather see the government do this proactively, rather than wait to see it get really bad before we scramble to put things in place," he said.

Meanwhile, Ohana thinks a wider virtual-learning offering and hiring more teachers, as districts did last year, would help. 

"Pedagogically, for curriculum, for COVID, there's never a downside to having 22 or 24 [students] instead of 30 or 31." 

'It comes down to funding'

Larger class sizes at the start of a school year aren't unique to the pandemic, according to Ryan Bird, spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). As Canada's biggest school district, it serves more than 240,000 students.

Classes are usually adjusted to be in line with Ministry of Education requirements after the first couple of weeks, when enrolment fluctuations have typically settled, Bird said, though he acknowledged that "we recognize that class sizes are even more of a concern during a pandemic." 

During the 2020-21 school year, the TDSB lowered class sizes, with a targeted focus on COVID-19 hotspot communities identified by Toronto Public Health. However, that specific initiative is not happening this year, Bird said, adding that the board is nonetheless trying to lower class sizes as much as possible.

"It comes down to funding and how much money we have to do this with.… What we're doing is doing our best, given the funding envelope we receive," Bird said. 

"We are working, as we always do, to make sure the staffing is where the students are."

Students file into Spring Valley Elementary School in Ancaster, Ont., on the first day of school last week. After enrolment fluctuations settle amid the first few weeks of school, classrooms are typically reorganized to be in line with Ministry of Education guidelines, said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Though smaller class sizes would be ideal, epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan points to some other important mitigation measures he believes should be paramount in school settings.

"The most effective tool we have is vaccination — and that's just not applied to school employees, but everybody in the community," said Deonandan, an associate professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Ottawa.

"If you vaccinate the entire neighbourhood and all the adults are eligible, then the probability of something bad happening in a school drops dramatically." 

A teen gets his vaccine at École Secondaire Saint-Henri in Montreal in June. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination against COVID-19, though clinical trials are underway. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Mandatory masking will also help slow transmission, he said, recommending N95 masks or an equivalent as "a better containment device for aerosolized particles."

Improved ventilation — ideally HEPA air filters, but alternately, using air purifiers or opening windows to help dilute virus particles in the air — is a third important measure, Deonandan said.

Deonandan also wants to see rapid tests used in conjunction with symptom-screening checks, to offer "a really good chance of removing infectious people" from schools.

A HEPA air filtration system in a classroom.
A new HEPA air filtration system is seen in a Toronto District School Board classroom. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"If all those things are in place and used to high effect, I'm not overly concerned about … the lack of small class sizes, even though that would be ideal," he said.

"We have a variety of tools in place, and so long as most of those tools are operating at high effectiveness, if one or two of those other tools aren't in effect, it shouldn't matter that much."

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson, Nigel Hunt and Matthew Kupfer

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