After mounting pressure from parents, unions and health professionals, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that school boards will be able to access more funding to ensure lower class sizes and upgraded HVAC systems.
Lecce announced boards will be able to access a greater portion of their reserve funding than normally allowed, freeing up nearly $500 million for the hiring of additional teachers and leasing additional classroom space, an increase of $244 million.
The government will also be providing a top-up of $11 million for four boards that don't have reserves, as well as providing $50 million for upgraded HVAC systems and $18 million for online learning, he said.
Lecce is not mandating smaller class sizes — something he explained by saying boards need to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
The funding is on top of previously announced $309 million for staffing and personal protective equipment.
The announcement comes only three-and-a-half weeks before the beginning of the school year, but the minister didn't provide an explanation as to why the extra funds were not announced earlier. Instead, he said that school boards have already been laying the groundwork for changes, by scouting out extra space in community centres, for example, he said.
"This investment is going to allow them to expand on the work already being done," he said.
One of the chief concerns has been about the lack of proper ventilation in many schools — particularly older buildings with ancient systems and windows that won't open. He also claimed that can be solved quickly — saying the government is sourcing high-level filters for new schools, stand-alone systems can be brought into older schools and portables, and be procured quickly.
Earlier in the day, the province's four major education unions requested an immediate meeting with Lecce and his top bureaucrats because they believe the province's school reopening plans fail to meet the requirements of the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act, and they are prepared to fight the government on the issue at the Labour Board.
OSSTF/FEESO, along with education affiliates, @aefo, @ETFOeducators, + @OECTAProv sent a letter to the Ministry of Labour + @sflecce. We are calling on the government to ensure a safe return to school for all.#onted #onpoli #safeseptember pic.twitter.com/4jnL2Vrxzk
— OSSTF Communications (@osstf) August 13, 2020
"By reopening schools without measures to appropriately address critical issues, the Ministry of Education has placed the health and safety of educators, their students and the entire school community in significant and imminent danger,” the unions wrote in a letter.
Asked about the letter, Lecce slammed unions for "obstructing and ultimately opposing" the government's plans. He told the unions they're in a favourable position to other front-line workers, at Walmart and on shop floors, who don't have the "strengths" of working in cohorts, with personal protective equipment provided, nurses on staff, and testing available.
NDP Health critic France Gélinas criticized the "non-announcement" from the minister.
“Today’s announcement from Minister Stephen Lecce offers absolutely no comfort at all to parents, school staff and students who are anxious and afraid about sending their children back to crowded classrooms in September," she said. "Lecce’s announcement literally amounts to a reminder that some — not all — school boards have some reserve funds, and they can use them to try to plug some of the massive holes the Ford government has in its bargain-basement back-to-school scheme."
Green Leader Mike Schriener also slammed the announcement, saying in a press release that "gutting local school board reserves is not a solution."
"Why has this minister and this government taken so long to make this announcement?" he said. "Everyone has been telling them for months that they are on the wrong track. Now with just weeks to go boards are expected to upgrade their ventilation systems, and find adequate spaces that are safe for our children to learn."
"Being tone-deaf comes with a price. Now boards have to scurry to even come close to doing the right thing," he said, adding the premier should consider delaying the start of the school year.
(CORRECTION: This story was updated to fix a typo in the of reserve funding available.)