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Sault parents, students, school board officials react to Ontario’s back to school plans

Students to return to classrooms observing COVID-19 precautions Sept. 8
High school students in class
(stock photo)

The Ontario government has announced its plan for schools this coming fall, after months of anticipation for parents and students alike.

Some parents are looking forward to their children returning to the classroom. Others have serious concerns.

“I’m quite happy my girls are going back to school,” said Sault parent Faye Pelletier, speaking to SooToday after the provincial government announced its return to school program for Ontario’s elementary and secondary school students Thursday.

“It’ll allow them to have a little more structure. They’re pretty excited to see their friends and ready to get back to routine,” Pelletier said.

“They both were able to do online learning and they handled it pretty well but I think the social aspect is important. They’re pretty excited to get back to their peers and teachers.”

While parents of younger students from JK to Grade 3 may be concerned about their children’s ability to observe social distancing, Pelletier, as a parent of an eighth grader, said “(older children are) pretty responsible in knowing to keep their distance. I’m a little worried for the younger classes but hopefully those parents will be of assistance to those students.”

Husband Guy Pelletier said “I’ve got mixed emotions in the sense that we don’t know if we’re going to get a second wave of COVID-19. Is everything going to stop or is it going to go back to square one? We all have our concerns.” 

“Hopefully each of the school boards will have every safety mechanism in place for the safety of the teachers and students, but I think it’s the right thing for them to go back. They need to go back and see their friends. They need to get out of the house. Life needs to get back to some sort of normality. I think it’s a positive step moving forward, however I’m still a little concerned about COVID. It’s still out there and there’s no vaccine for COVID-19 at this point,” Pelletier said.

The Pelletiers daughter Lilia, heading into Grade 12 at St. Mary’s College, said “I’m excited to be able to see all my friends and all my teachers. I’m excited to be able to have a social aspect with everyone because online learning was super long and a lot of work,” adding she is already used to wearing a mask at her place of employment (students faced with having to wear masks upon returning to school in September).

Lilia’s sister Avery, heading into Grade 8 at F.H. Clergue French Immersion Public School, said “I’m very excited but I’m nervous at the same time. I’m just excited to see my friends and just to be able to actually talk to my teachers and ask them questions. It’ll be easier to ask them questions. It’s easier to be at school.”

“With two parents working from home as well, that’s been a bit of a challenge,” Faye Pelletier added.

“It’s unknown even for us (Guy and Faye Pelletier both provincial government employees) when we’ll be returning to our workplaces. It’s been challenging having everybody in one household trying to be online at one time and trying to get work done. The teachers have done a good job but face to face is much better.”

Jacinthe Pelletier, Lilia and Avery’s grandmother, said “it’ll be good for everybody, for the kids to go back to school. Everybody will go back to a routine, including the teachers. The teachers need to go back to work too (in a conventional teaching environment).”

For now at least, secondary schools in the Sault and Algoma region will not be required to cohort their students into separate groupings of approximately 15 students (that requirement in place for other areas in the province).

“Now we can move forward with a more focused approach with a plan for back to school, and our parents with the Algoma District School Board (ADSB) can know that their children will be back to school. We’re not one of the designated boards that need to do cohorting for secondary, so students will be back in the classroom with a commitment to safety and well being with public health guidelines and protocols in place,” said Jennifer Sarlo, ADSB chair.

School boards, Sarlo said, had not received all the details from the province as of Thursday, but said “there’s a guidance memo coming soon with more details, but at this point Algoma District School Board won’t be required to cohort our secondary students.”

As for the elementary level, Sarlo said “there will be some limitations on their contacts in the school so it won’t just be business as usual and there will be some public health guidelines we’re going to have to follow.”

Sarlo said online learning will be available for children with parents who have strong, continuing concerns about COVID-19 spread who choose not to return their children to school.

“We’re going to communicate with our parents, and one of the points of this is we will require parents to make a decision around whether they want their child to come to school.”

“It’ll be a pre-registered survey that will come out so parents will respond and tell us whether their child will be attending class in person. It’ll be a survey through various ways (such as email and other methods).”

Sarlo said the addition of more public health nurses, announced by the province Thursday, to be on hand for screening and testing, “will be helpful, for sure.”

Sarlo said children’s mental health and wellbeing through normal socialization at school is crucial, despite the risk of COVID-19.

“There’s a risk in every situation but we want to mitigate the risk as much as possible, recognizing the risks on the other side, of isolation (learning from home on an extended basis) and the risk to health and wellbeing.”

“We’re going to do our best, with advice from public health, to keep our children and our staff safe…(but) we’ll respect those decisions either way (for those parents who wish to keep their children at home).”

“The Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board (H-SCDSB) is delighted that all elementary and secondary students will be able to return to school in the fall. School plays an important role in many people's lives, and our board looks forward to welcoming everyone back,” wrote Rose Burton Spohn, H-SCDSB director of education, in an email.

Like the ADSB, the H-SCDSB is a non-designated board, which means St. Mary's College will be open to all secondary students every day.  

“However, as is required by the province, we will be adopting timetabling methods that limit the number of student-to-student contacts. We anticipate receiving more documents from the Ministry of Education in the near future that will provide us with additional guidance.”

“We acknowledge that, although all our schools will be adhering to the health and safety guidelines provided by the province, some families might still wish to keep their children at home. We will be reaching out to our families within the next week to provide them with more detail and learn what their intentions are for the next school year,” Burton Spohn wrote.

Under the government’s back to school plan, announced at a Whitby, Ontario school by Premier Doug Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health, most high school students will return to traditional classroom settings full time in September.

High school students at over 20 of Ontario’s 72 school boards, such as the Toronto District School Board, will be in class only half the time to stem the spread of COVID-19, with maximum class sizes of 15, doing ‘curriculum-linked independent work’ on those days when they are not in class.

Elementary students will be in school full time, students separated into designated groups known as cohorts.

Students in Grades 4 through 12 must wear masks in class.

The government said it will be spending $309 million in funding for the back to school plan, including $60 million for personal protective equipment (PPE) and $80 million for extra staffing.

500 public health nurses will be added to help make the plan work.

The province also announced Thursday licensed child care centres across Ontario will open at full capacity starting Sept. 1 to align child care with the reopening of schools.

In a news release, the province wrote “the government will continue to follow the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health and the COVID-19 Command Table to ensure the health and safety of the children and staff is never compromised as childcare capacity expands to 100 per cent. The enhanced health and safety procedures that were put in place as part of our reopening plan will remain in place, and in some instances strengthened, to protect children, staff and families, including:

  • Requiring all child care staff to wear masks at all times, effective Sept. 1;
  • Ensuring frequent cleaning of child care centres;
  • Screening of children and staff before entering a childcare facility;
  • Maintaining attendance records for rigorous contact tracing and coordination with local public health authorities;
  • Ensuring frequent hand washing and proper hand hygiene for children and staff; and
  • Establishing clear and rigid case management protocols in the event a staff member or child becomes ill, or tests positive for COVID-19.

Parents who had to work from their place of employment since March were able to take their children to daycare centres, while parents working from home cared for their children at home.