As It Happens·Q&A

Ontario teacher sounds alarm as 30-plus students pack into classroom during pandemic

James Griffith would normally be excited to begin the fall semester with his Grade 12 students in Kingston, Ont. But this back-to-school season isn't like anything the high school teacher seen before.

'Once you're in the classroom, there's only so much room to go,' says James Griffith

James Griffith is a teacher at Frontenac Secondary School in Kingston, Ont. (Submitted by James Griffith)


James Griffith would normally be excited to begin the fall semester with his Grade 12 students in Kingston, Ont. But this back-to-school season isn't like anything the high school teacher has seen before.

Across Canada, provinces and school boards have grappled with how to bring students back, while keeping them safe during an ongoing pandemic.

Some school boards in Ontario, many in larger urban centres, have been designated by the provincial government to reduce class sizes to 15 students with time split between in-class and at-home instruction.

But Frontenac Secondary School, where Griffith teaches, is in the smaller Limestone District School Board, which is non-designated. That means full-time attendance in addition to "enhanced health and safety protocols," according to the province's website.

Griffith, who is also his school's co-branch president for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, is teaching 32 students in a small classroom, making physical distancing impossible, he said.

He's concerned about the health and safety of the more than 1,100 students walking the halls of the 1950s-era building and whether they will be able to handle the revamped curriculum that has them in the same class all day. 

Here's part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

James, how did the first day of school go?

It was long. Five hours of instruction is a long time to be talking to kids, but I think everybody seemed to deal with it fairly well.

How did they deal with it?

Well, it's 32 Grade 12 students in this room. And most of them seem to have managed to keep up with things, at least for the first day.

I think it might be a bit different as we keep moving on with this five hours instruction every day on one single course. But I think kids were pretty happy to be back and seeing each other.

There's risk involved, but the kids are seeing each other. How important do you think that is?

I think it's hugely important. I mean, you know, they text each other constantly or whatever, but actually seeing each other, I could see some of these kids had not physically seen each other in quite some time, and they're quite happy to do that.

Were they wearing masks?

Everybody was wearing a mask, yes. So that was good to see.

And what about physical distancing, with 32 students in your classroom?

Our school put in some procedures to try to limit how much direct and indirect contact would happen. So the three classrooms in my area all come through one door at the beginning of the day, to make sure that they're not mixing with the other 1,100 kids going through all the other doors to go there. So that worked pretty well.

But once you're in the classroom, there's only so much room to go…. And you know, it's a 1957 building … and when you put 34 desks and 32 students in them, there's not a whole lot of distancing between anybody.

Griffith says it's impossible to maintain physical distancing guidelines when he's forced to teach more than 30 students at a time. (Submitted by James Griffith)

Well, what is the distance that you have between the students?

Between rows, I've got about 50 centimetres. And I've got seven rows. And there's no distance really between desks in a row. So [it's] ... back to back to back.

It's supposed to be a metre, right?

Well, originally [the province] said two metres, then downgraded that to one metre. And now they're just like, I don't think we can make it happen anyway. So there's no distancing happening here.

Teenagers are teenagers, you know. We sent them out on our break to make sure they go outside [for] lunch, to get some outside air. But the minute they're outside those doors, whether we've sent them to a specific door or not, they're all congregating, all bunched up. No masks on, because kids want to see each other. And wearing a mask all day gets tiring.

I have a bottle of hand sanitizer, some Lysol wipes, and I've got 32 students in a room. So I'm not sure what other levels of protection we're going to do here other than biohazard suits.- James Griffith teacher 

We know that high schools in the big cities in Ontario, like Toronto, Ottawa, Brampton, there are rules for, in high schools at least, 15 students maximum per class. And there is a mix of in-class [and] remote learning as well, and two metres between desks. So how is it that yours doesn't seem to be the same?

When they announced the reopening of school plans by [Education] Minister [Stephen] Lecce and Premier [Doug] Ford, they sort of split the province up into what they called designated boards and non-designated.

Designated are places like you just mentioned, [the Toronto District School Board], etc., that has a class cap of 15. They're able to space things out and then they have a hybrid model of online learning as well.

For smaller boards like Limestone District here in Kingston, they said: you're a non-designated board. So it's just business back to usual. It's full attendance, all day, so you can't possibly make smaller classes.

If it's important for kids in Toronto to have this distance, is it not important for kids in Kingston?

It's certainly a question we asked. Why are we just, you know, fodder? Why is it OK to stick 30-odd people in a very small room with no ventilation when that's not allowed anywhere [else]?

If I go to a restaurant in downtown Kingston, I can be one of 12 people [who are] all properly distanced out, or if I go to the bank I'm one of four people in there.

But as soon as you go to the classroom, it's just back to regular old school. The only difference being that we're wearing masks and we're trying to keep our hands clean.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says he 'will not rest until every single publicly funded school in this province has every layer of prevention in place.' (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The other thing that's different as you mentioned, five hours a day of the same subject. Tell us a bit about how you're supposed to teach right now.

[laughs] Right. So at the beginning, they said we're going to do "quadmesters." So two subjects a day, so 150 minutes in the morning, 150 minutes in the afternoon. And that was seen as hard to do. But we could do it.

And then they said, well, that's not going to work. And they changed it at the very last minute — threw weeks and weeks of planning into the garbage — and tabled something called an "octomester," which means that all the students take one course for five hours a day, five days a week for five weeks, write an exam, and then the very next day get back into their second class. And then, you know, wash, rinse, repeat.

So the octomester is difficult. … I can certainly stand here and talk for five hours if I have to, but it's certainly not what the kids need or what's very good for them in trying to process that amount of information.

You teach law, right?

Yeah, it's Grade 12 law. And in essence, I taught the first week of classes inside a day.

The reason for this octomester is that you are with the same students all day. You limit the exposure by [not] changing classes and having a whole different cohort in each class you go to. Is that not a mitigating factor here?

It's mitigating in the sense that they checked off a box that said we're looking after health and safety [in a] COVID situation.

It's great that they have a single cohort or class all day while they're in the building. But the second they're outside of the building, all those rules just disappear.

If the minister of education, Stephen Lecce, was listening right now, what would you want to tell him?

I'd tell him to stop lying to people, and that 15 students in a room is only in some situations, and that the pictures that he's shown on TV of really big, spacious classrooms is not the reality we face in most of the school boards in this province. And it really bothers me.

Stephen Lecce said today: "We will not rest until every single publicly-funded school in this province has every layer of prevention in place."

[laughs] OK. Well, I have a bottle of hand sanitizer, some Lysol wipes, and I've got 32 students in a room.

So I'm not sure what other levels of protection we're going do here other than biohazard suits.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now