Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce called on teachers' unions to "be flexible" with prep time after reports that the province rejected the Toronto District School Board's (TDSB) reopening plan.
The TDSB stated in a document outlining its options for the fall that at a cost of around $20 million and a slightly shortened school day to allow for teacher prep time, it could hire more staff to ensure elementary class sizes of 15 to 20 students.
The board's proposal for high schools would also see students in face-to-face classes less than 50 per cent of the time — the minimum the government said it would like to see, the Toronto Star reported.
"We're asking for teachers’ unions to come to the table with a willingness to work with the government on flexibility surrounding prep time, yes, but we're also asking more specifically to be part of that solution," said Lecce when asked if the government was expecting educators to do class prep on their own time.
"The (teachers') unions I think just need to hear a message that is being embraced across the country, which is to come together, work with the province, find some creative ways to change what has historically been delivered differently in the past ... in fact, that's probably expected in this type of challenge, we need people to be reasonable," he said.
The premier also used questions about the government's plan to reopen schools to blast unions.
"Why is it that the teachers’ unions, just, it's just constant, they constantly want to attack," he said. "Why don't you be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem?"
Unions have been critical of the government's plan in recent weeks, calling for lower class sizes and saying that the government didn't properly consult with them on the reopening plan. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario pushed back against the government on Monday via Twitter.
This allegation is absurd, it is a fabrication. It is rather unfortunate that the government is resorting to unnecessary attacks on education unions to deflect from the real issue in schools - safety. #onpoli #SafeSeptemberON #onted https://t.co/KCsa7Il2dy
— Elementary Educators (@ETFOeducators) August 17, 2020
Regarding the TDSB's proposal, Lecce said government and board officials had a "productive discussion."
"What we're asking school boards, particularly our unions, to do is provide the maximum flexibility for school boards to enable them to teach a child for the entire duration today, to the extent that that is possible — there’s 300 instructional minutes," he said. "We want all of that time to be used to the extent humanly possible for learning, and we think parents expect that."
He said the government heard from parents that the TDSB plan to have high school students physically in a classroom for just 25 per cent of the time was "really low."
"My job and my hope is to work with the school board to increase that percentage, so we can really maximize the amount of time the student has in front of their teacher while, yes, keeping classroom sizes low — it's not an either or proposition, we want to try to get both done," said Lecce.
And Toronto Public Health announced Monday that it has created a team of 70 public health nurses to help with the reopening of schools. The nurses will provide staff and parents with public health advice to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus along with education and training on infection prevention and control protocols.
Toronto Board of Health Chair Joe Cressy called the reopening of schools a "big challenge" in a statement.
"Toronto Public Health has acknowledged that the importance of in-person learning for both children and parents must be balanced with the risks of COVID-19 transmission," he said, noting that the health unit's recommendations for reopening schools include smaller class sizes, expanding the use of masks, testing and additional supports for schools in high-needs areas.
"To facilitate these recommendations, City of Toronto staff from a number of departments will be working with the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board to identify city real estate and spaces to support physical distancing needs," Cressy said, adding that schools will be able to use all city parks without a permit.
Ride on the yellow school bus
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath landed at Queen's Park Monday with a school bus to highlight her concerns with the Ford government's back-to-school plan and student transportation.
"Parents are telling us that they’re very concerned about the number of kids in classrooms, they’re very concerned about the number of kids getting onto school buses, and they need to do better," said Horwath, standing across the street from a yellow bus.
Today, I brought a school bus to Queen’s Park to show how Ford's #UnsafeSeptember scheme will leave kids elbow-to-elbow in September.
If I were premier, I’d be funding #SmallerSaferClasses by hiring more staff. I wouldn’t just cross my fingers — I’d take action to make kids safe. pic.twitter.com/bp3xH8hRlv
— Andrea Horwath (@AndreaHorwath) August 17, 2020
Horwath said if she was in the premier's shoes, she would have spent the summer "sourcing other kind of spaces for classrooms ... hiring more teachers, hiring more bus drivers, putting more routes on the road." The opposition leader said she's concerned that children will be "cheek by jowl inside those buses."
The party had cardboard cutouts of children inside the school bus to show the difference between distancing and not-distancing.
The provincial government is encouraging families to use private transportation where possible to get kids to school along with other modes like walking and biking. In its guidelines for reopening schools, the province noted that with a model of in-school learning five days a week, boards might have to have more than one student per seat in buses "and operate closer to capacity." If physical distancing isn't possible, grades 4 to 12 students will have to wear masks, but primary students will just be encouraged to wear them. The government also said students should have assigned seats and that students from the same household or cohort should sit together.
Ivana Yelich, a spokesperson for the premier, defended the government's efforts, noting that the province was allocating $40 million for cleaning buses twice a day. This is part of $309 million in funding the government announced to hire more public health nurses, educators and custodians and for other things like cleaning supplies.
We certainly recognize the challenges that student transportation will pose in September. That's why we are providing an additional $40 million for cleaning of buses twice daily. This funding was announced in July as part of our safe reopening of schools plan. https://t.co/BdczKB1RqP
— Ivana Yelich (@yelich_ivana) August 17, 2020
"I really do believe that Mr. Ford and Mr. Lecce have dropped the ball," said Horwath. "And what we might end up now is a pushback of the school year."
Asked by QP Briefing if she thought the school year should be delayed given that some boards like the TDSB are having to revamp their reopening plans, Horwath said "the window is rapidly closing." But she stopped short of calling for a delay as Ontario's Liberals have during the past week.
"I have all kinds of faith in the boards and in the workers to be able to come up with something that’s going to be safe and that’s going to ensure that it meets the needs of our kids, but if the next iteration that the Toronto District School Board brings forward is kiboshed by the government again then we’ll definitely end up in that situation."
Angus Reid data explores COVID-19 compliance
Ontarians are more likely to adhere to public health guidance aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 than other Canadians, according to new public opinion data from the Angus Reid Institute.
"Infection fighters," those who follow "virus suppression behaviours carefully" accounted for 55 per cent of Ontario's population. Meanwhile, "the inconsistent," those who adhere to some public health guidelines but not others, made up 33 per cent of the population, and "cynical spreaders" made up 12 per cent. The institute described the "cynical spreaders" as those who don't physically distance, have expanded social circles and don't necessarily practice regular hand-washing or mask-wearing.
This compares to the average across Canada — the polling data making up the COVID Compliance Index includes British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces — which categorizes 47 per cent of Canadians as "infection fighters," 36 per cent as "the inconsistent" and 18 per cent as the "cynical spreaders."
Angus Reid listed nine behaviours that contradict public health guidance including:
- Not washing hands regularly
- Not keeping extra distance from others
- Not wearing a mask indoors with people outside their household
- Shaking hands, hugging, or touching others
- Not avoiding public spaces
- Seeing people outside of close family and friends
- Spending time with 10-plus people outside of their household
- Spending at least half the time with others indoors
- Not distancing when in groups
"Infection fighters" were found to partake in two or fewer of these behaviours, while one third of "the inconsistent" were engaged in three to five of them. "Cynical spreaders" engaged in at least three of these behaviours, according to Angus Reid's data.
The findings also showed that age is a factor when it comes to following health protocols and that younger Canadians are less likely to follow them.
The Angus Reid Institute also noted a correlation with political stripe, noting that Conservative voters were four times more likely to fall into the "cynical spreaders" category compared to those who supported the Liberals or New Democrats last year.
Football season a no go
The Canadian Football League season has been cancelled and Premier Ford isn't too happy about it.
"Well, you're talking to a big football fan, I hope the CFL comes back," said Ford when asked for his reaction. He noted the federal government didn't agree to the league's request for a $30-million, interest-free loan.
"It's so important in so many parts of this country, it's important here in Toronto and Ontario, Hamilton and Ottawa," said Ford. "Let's pray that they come back next year, stronger than ever."
Drinking in parks
There could be a dispute brewing between Premier Ford and Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger. The comes after CHCH asked Ford last week about public drinking tickets being handed out in the city, with the premier criticizing local officials for not making it legal to drink in parks.
"A little bit of flexibility, mayor, come on, give them a break," Ford said last week, with CHCH noting on Monday that the mayor didn't think the decision was in his hands.
"I don't want to come down heavy on Mayor Eisenberger … but we passed it, we passed it," said Ford of the legislation that would give municipalities the power to allow drinking in public spaces.
"So, you know, I just believe we should have a little bit of leniency, and I guess he's trying to direct it away from himself and the council. Guys, step up, give Hamilton a break, give the people of Hamilton a break," said Ford.