After much planning, debate, and a few trips back to the drawing board, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the Ministry of Education have put forward a back-to-school plan for Toronto public school staff, students, and parents.
The original start date for public schools in Toronto was Sept. 8, but the new protocols — the details of which TDSB has up on their official website in a section entitled “Return to School” — have confirmed that the new start date for elementary and secondary schools will be Sept. 15.
For elementary schools, the plan is to group students into cohorts who share the same schedule of activities for everything from homeroom to lunch and recess. The schedules of various cohorts will be staggered in order to keep different groups from coming into close contact. Kindergarten classes will be allowed a maximum of 27 students, Grades 1 to 3 will be allowed to have 20 students per class, and Grades 4 to 8 will have a maximum of 27. For any schools in areas that Public Health has deemed high-risk, kindergarten classes will operate at a maximum of 15 students, with Grades 1 to 8 at a maximum of 20 students per class.
The City of Toronto has also identified 24 facilities for public and Catholic schools to use to help with social distancing when school starts in September.
For secondary students who have opted for 100 per cent remote learning, TDSB is currently working on creating a central virtual school using Google Classroom or Brightspace platforms. For those who are physically returning to school, the year will be broken down into “quadmesters” that cover two subjects per segment, with the respective exams occurring at the close of each “quad.”
This “adapted in-school day model” will have students physically at school every other day, with virtual interactions with their teachers during home days. Both types of school days will see students dismissed at noon, with live virtual class starting up again from 2 p.m. – 3:15 p.m. to close out the day. While there is no maximum number of students identified at this time, TDSB’s website says for in-school learning, “class sizes will be approximately 15 students.”
Of course, while there are many Toronto area families who have opted not to (physically) send their students back to school, those numbers are fluctuating as September draws closer and provincial and board protocols are finalized. While TDSB will be redeploying hundreds of staff, hiring over 300 new teachers, and pulling millions from the board’s reserves in order to carry out the new protocols, it’s possible that even with caps on classes and plans to stagger cohorts who have opted for in-person learning, the recommended two metre distance between students will be difficult to maintain.
In order to attend to this practical reality, the TDSB has mandated that masks are an absolute necessity when it comes to staff and students maintaining health and safety standards in indoor spaces.
“We have made it clear that, except for those with exemptions for medical reasons, all students and staff are required to wear a mask or face covering,” confirmed TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird. However, the question of how teachers and administrative staff are planning to ensure students (especially in the elementary cohorts) wear masks consistently may present a new set of issues come Sept. 15, when theory meets practice.
The question of what going back to school is actually going to look like for students, staff, and parents is partially answered by the policies so far, but the picture is only clearing up to a point. As a spokesperson from TDSB explained, should there be an outbreak in a particular school, “quad,” or area, the contingency protocols enacted will need to be unique to each case, leaving much uncertainty about the many months ahead.
“At all TDSB schools, should [a] case of COVID be confirmed, we would work closely with Toronto Public Health, which would determine next steps based on each individual case,” Bird said.
Indeed, if the COVID era has made one thing clear, it’s that situations and information are changing rapidly, and our responses must be just as swift. While it seems TDSB and the Ministry of Education have agreed on how to get things started, there is no question that roundtrips to and from the drawing board could be defining characteristics of the 2020-2021 school year.