WINDSOR, ONT. -- Schools across the province are looking at a very different back to school transition come September.

The province announced Friday its plans for students to head back to school in the fall after doors to all publically-funded schools in Ontario were shuttered in March due to COVID-19.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced three potential options for schools to reopen, and it will be up to each school board to determine the best fit.

Students may return to in-person instruction while following health guidelines with class sizes around 15 students, continue online learning, or some hybrid of the two with students attending class on alternate weeks.

Harvey Bischof president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) said he had no “flagrant objection” to the announcement, but he was concerned about the “lack of detail.”

He said 15 students per class in a high school setting would be difficult to organize.

“In elementary it makes a little bit more sense, a little bit easier to understand,” he said. “But in secondary school, students typically take three to four courses, they're mixed in with different teachers and students over the course of the day so there's a long way to go to get that settled.”

The OSSTF has its own framework for a safe reopening of schools which includes PPE, joint health and safety committees, staggered lunches and classes, more opportunity for professional development, setting realistic academic expectations, and permitting part-time options for students, among others.

On Thursday, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) issued a news release stating it has submitted 40 recommendations to the ministry to ensure a safe reopening. Some of those recommendations included a longer adjustment period as schools reopen, and additional funding for school boards to meet COVID-19 health measures.

The province said it is adding to per-pupil funding by $250 to help schools and there is an additional $4 million available to hire more custodians and pay for other cleaning requirements.

Liz Stuart, President of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said they had issued suggestions to the ministry including a flexible curriculum, suspended EQAO testing, and addressing learning gaps due to the school closures.

Stuart said the suggestions were not “genuinely considered” by the government before Friday’s announcement.

“As we continue our discussions in the weeks and months ahead, we hope the government will be more receptive to professional advice about the best way to move forward, and finally understand that teachers and students cannot be expected to do more with less,” she said. 

Preparing locally

The Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board said in a news release Friday, superintendents and senior managers have started planning and are putting together a “Back to School Transition Committee.”

“We have taken a proactive approach by meeting as a senior administrative team to strategize around every possible scenario for a return to school protocol,” WECDSB director of education Terry Lyons said.

“Throughout the summer we will continue to consult with parents, our local health unit, our trustees, our coterminous school boards, our principals and all of our labour groups to develop a plan so that our students will be able to get back on track when school resumes.”

The start of the school year will likely begin with a phased in approach and will involve a mix of virtual learning and in-person lessons.

Lyons said the Back to School Transition Committee will develop a plan to “ensure students meet curriculum expectations while recognizing the necessary physical distancing measures.”

A draft plan, which considers reduced class sizes, alternative scheduling and transportation, accommodating students with special needs and mental health concerns, is expected to be ready for early July, and shared with families and community stakeholders for feedback.

St. Clair Catholic District School board announced the appointment of a project coordinator Wednesday to identify and address risks while ensuring health and safety measures are met before reopening in September.

Greater Essex County District School Board director of education Erin Kelly said safety will be the top priority as students return back to school and the board will be working closely with the health unit to ensure proper protocols are in place.

“We are pleased to see that school boards will have an opportunity to provide learning in a manner that best serves our students and their families on a local level, respecting our context,” Kelly said “Working closely with our stakeholders, we will ensure that the needs of our students are met and that the methods of delivery are flexible, adaptive and responsive to needs.”

She said the board appreciates the ministry’s guidance and funding commitments toward mental health and technology, along with committing to ensuring schools have the appropriate cleaning and health equipment.

“We look forward to the return of our students in the various formats that may take,” Kelly said.

With files from CTV Windsor's Michelle Maluske