Toronto Public Health urges city's largest school board to keep class sizes down

Toronto Public Health has raised a number of red flags with the province's school reopening plan and is urging the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in a letter to keep elementary class sizes smaller than normal.

TDSB doesn't have much 'wiggle room' to make classes smaller, trustee warns

Toronto Public Health has raised a number of concerns, particularly surrounding class sizes, when it comes to the province's plan to reopen schools. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Toronto Public Health has raised a number of red flags with the province's school reopening plan and is urging the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to keep elementary class sizes smaller than normal.

Vinita Dubey, the health agency's associate medical officer of health, made the recommendations in a letter to the TDSB that was posted online by a school trustee late Thursday.

Dubey urges school officials to keep two metres between students to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets, which could transmit the novel coronavirus.

"While some distance may be beneficial over no distance (eg. one metre compared to no distance), keeping two metres apart as much as possible is still strongly recommended by public health," Dubey writes.

Without that space, there are several risks:

  • If a student gets COVID-19, the risk of them spreading it to others goes up — especially in JK to Grade 3, where masks aren't required.
  • There could be "pinch points" where students crowd together, for example lining up to go outside.
  • The teacher may not have enough control over a larger class to ensure students are maintaining distance.

Ontario's current school reopening plan was based partly on a list of recommendations released by SickKids hospital late last month. The document, which was written in collaboration by medical experts across Ontario, calls for arranging classroom furniture to leave space between students, masking for middle and high school students, and implementing smaller class sizes.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird says the board is working with the province to explore options to lower elementary class sizes. (Angelina King/CBC)

In an emailed statement to CBC News Friday evening, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said the board has been working with Toronto Public Health since the beginning of the pandemic and has incorporated many of their suggested public health measures into the return to school plans. 

"Recently, TPH expressed concerns specifically with regard to full-size elementary classes, which were prescribed by the Ministry of Education," Bird said. 

"We are working with the ministry to explore options to lower elementary class sizes. As we explore these different options, it's important to note that, depending on funding, other strategies may have to be considered, such as shortening the school day, reassigning teachers from non-classroom roles and lowering class sizes only in areas deemed at risk by Toronto Public Health.

According to Bird, while school boards, including the TDSB, have received additional funding for staff, this limited funding is not enough to cover the requirements in a system the size of the TDSB, let alone the entire province.

Regarding references to the TDSB using its reserves to fund additional staffing, Bird said, "some of our reserves have already been used to balance the budget, while the remaining funds have already been committed to specific future obligations."

Jennifer Story, a TDSB trustee for Ward 15, Toronto-Danforth, called the situation "challenging."

"The provincial government has not taken their investment into back-to-school COVID planning seriously by making sure that the resources are there for boards to do their utmost to meet public health advice and to meet public concerns," she told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday.

Story said the TDSB doesn't have much "wiggle room" when it comes to implementing smaller class sizes on its own because it doesn't generate its own funds. 

"We're funded to hire a certain number of teachers and to have class sizes that the ministry determines," she said, adding "We need the Ministry of Education to hear our concerns."

Government defending plan

Alexandra Adamo, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, defended the provinces plan in an email, saying it has been "informed by the best medical and scientific minds in the country."

Adamo said the government is spending $75 million more on cleaning and hiring 500 public health nurses to work in schools. 

At a Friday morning news conference, Ford and Lecce were asked multiple times by reporters to give a yes or no answer on whether they would consider spending more to lower class sizes.

Neither answered directly.

Lecce said the ministry of education would be "flexible" in its response, and referred to the back-to-school plan as a "living document."

"What I'm saying is the plan needs to be responsive to the risk," he said. 

Lecce said the ministry and TDSB were set to meet later on Friday to further discuss concerns about the reopening of schools. 

With files from Ania Bessonov


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