Toronto

TDSB chair 'frustrated' with education ministry after plan for smaller class sizes rejected

The chair of the Toronto District School Board says he's grown "frustrated" with the Ministry of Education as the two entities try to negotiate a back-to-school strategy with the start of the academic year just weeks away. 

Time to formulate a safe plan is running out, Alexander Brown says

Trustees in the Toronto District School Board are scheduled to meet tomorrow to further discuss back-to-school plans. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The chair of the Toronto District School Board says he's grown "frustrated" with the Ministry of Education as the two entities try to negotiate a back-to-school strategy with the start of the academic year just weeks away. 

"The plans seem to be changing," said Alexander Brown, also the trustee for Willowdale, in an interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Monday.

"It just seems like they change and change and so it's more frustration."

Over the weekend, CBC Toronto learned that the ministry rejected the board's latest proposal, which would have seen elementary students return to smaller class sizes come September. Particularly, children in junior kindergarten through Grade 3 would be in classes of 15, while students in Grades 4 to 6 would be in classes of 20. 

The proposed plan shortened the regular 300-minute teaching day in order to accommodate the 48 minutes of preparation time teachers are given daily as per their union agreements. It would also include redeploying librarians and guidance counsellors as teachers.

"So we're stretching it as much as we can to say we understand the financial implications," Brown said.

The moves would allow for smaller class sizes without the board having to hire more teachers. Brown said it would cost about $20 million, as opposed to the $190 million estimated price tag for smaller classes and 300 minutes of instruction per day for elementary students, the figure the ministry has requested boards maintain. 

The ministry's guidelines also call for class sizes to remain at pre-COVID-19 levels, meaning many elementary students could find themselves in class of 30 or more. 

Brown noted that Toronto Public Health has recommended the TDSB work to reduce class sizes as much as possible, and that the board intends to do so.

"It's also what we've been hearing loud and clear from parents across the city," he told guest host Jill Dempsey.

Lecce calls for 'flexibility' as Toronto mayor offers options

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Monday that his government is still working with the board on a range of issues, including distancing within elementary schools and how long high school students should be in class. 

Lecce said right now the government is "focusing on getting to a resolution," and called on teachers' unions to be flexible, a point Premier Doug Ford echoed.

"What we're asking for is flexbility," Lecce said. 

Watch Premier Doug Ford lash out at teachers' unions during Monday's press conference

Being careful to draw a distinction between teachers and the teachers' union, Ontario Premier Doug Ford accused the latter of constantly wanting to attack and of being inflexible in their demands.  2:18

Mayor John Tory, meanwhile, said Toronto Public Health will help with efforts to recruit public health nurses and expects to have a team of 70 operating in the city. 

Tory also said the school board could use parks as classrooms without getting a permit, while suggesting the city's in talks with boards to offer up other buildings, as well. He did not say what buildings might be used.

Ministry shuts down plan for shortened school day

In a memo to the TDSB, the Ministry of Education said it rejected the latest proposal over concerns about a shortened school day and what it would mean for curriculums and after-school child care. 

"We would ask the board to establish elementary timetables that provide a full 300-minute instructional day for elementary students as required by the Education Act," wrote deputy education minister Nancy Naylor. 

Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce has repeatedly said the province is willing to be "flexible" and work with boards to formulate back-to-school plans. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Brown said the government's concerns are valid, but that the COVID-19 outbreak necessitates the board employ creative solutions.

"I see a global pandemic as a crisis which requires leadership to be flexible. They need to, as many people have been saying, sit down at the table with everyone with a real plan with the real intention of coming up with a plan," he continued.

There cannot be a "one size fits all" approach for elementary schools across the province, Brown added.

"We've got many different communities across this province and we've got many different communities just in this city, so we need to be flexible on this."

If the ministry won't accept the possibility of a shorter school day, then the TDSB will need to deploy resources strategically to ensure smaller elementary class sizes in areas of the city hit hardest by COVID-19.

The board is not currently considering a postponed or staggered start to the school year, Brown explained, but time is quickly running out. The board meets tomorrow, and Brown said that it could be the "last day" to have a back-to-school plan solidified before other measures may be necessary to ensure student safety come the academic year.

The board also expects to have student registration numbers finalized by tomorrow, which will help staff formulate a revised proposal, Brown said.

With files from Ania Bessonov

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