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Sep 16, 2020 • • 5 minute read
Administrators at Ottawa’s largest school board acknowledge that some parents are worried about some large classes in elementary schools that students are returning to this week.
However, on average classes will be smaller than last year, they told trustees at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board Tuesday at a briefing on return-to-school plans.
Superintendent Janice McCoy said classes for elementary students who are learning online have deliberately been made larger in order to keep in-school classes smaller.
In past years, classes in Grades 4 to 8 could be the largest at elementary schools, with some “in the low 30s,” said McCoy. This year those grades will be smaller in school buildings, averaging 22 students, although a few classes may be “in the high 20s,” she said.
In contrast, most virtual classes for Grades 4 to 8 will be between 33 and 35 students but some could reach into the high 30s, staff said.
There will be adjustments to in-person classes in the next week to 10 days, McCoy said. However, staff will try to make classes as small as possible, “to the extent possible and with the resources we have.”
Director Camille Williams-Taylor said that hiring more teachers to make classes smaller is not simply a matter of more funding, but also finding qualified teachers.
It was already a challenge finding French immersion teachers before the pandemic, for instance.
The board must still meet provincial class size requirements, which apply to both in-class and virtual schools. For example, 90 per cent of classes in Grades 1 to Grade 3 must have 20 students or fewer, while 10 per cent can have 23 students.
Kindergarten classes can have 29 students, with two educators.
At most urban high schools, the province has limited classes to about 15. Students attend part-time and learn online for the remainder.
Trustees heard updates on a variety of other back-to-school issues:
Switching between in-person and online school
The district will consider requests from parents who want to switch their children from in-class to virtual school, or vice versa.
“We are seeing requests for movement both ways,” said superintendent Eric Hardie.
However, the “window is closing” for switches, said director Williams-Taylor. She didn’t specify a deadline but said students need educational stability.
The district already delayed the start of school, which was originally supposed to start Sept. 3. The board’s elementary students won’t be all back in class until Sept. 18.
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Staff can’t be redeployed and schools reorganized continually, trustees were told.
The board is setting up virtual schools for 17,000 of the 75,000 students in the board who chose to learn at home.
That meant redeploying 700 classroom teachers, who were notified of their virtual school assignments in the last several days.
The board set up six virtual elementary and one secondary school. Classes start Sept. 18.
“The entire system had to be redesigned in days,” said Williams-Taylor.
The board changed its initial plan to link students studying online with their community schools after the Ministry of Education released a directive on online schooling in late August.
Outbreaks in schools
The board has created a “dashboard” for its website to report how many people at schools have tested positive for COVID-19 and how many classes have been dismissed, which is required by the province’s back-to-school guidelines. As of Tuesday, there were no people with COVID-19 associated with any schools in the board.
Cases are also reported to the provincial government, which publishes school-by-school totals every weekday.
Public health officials determine who are “close contacts” of anyone associated with a school who test positive for COVID-19.
Close contacts are sent home and generally asked to to self-isolate for 14 days.
The Ministry of Education protocol for outbreaks in schools says that people in the same “cohort” as someone with COVID-19 would “usually be considered close contacts.” Those cohorts include the classroom, school bus, before-after school programs and extra-curricular activities.
Associate Director Brett Reynolds said in some cases, people in the classroom who are wearing PPE or who have not been within two metres of the person who has tested positive might not be deemed close contacts.
That decision is up to Ottawa public health officials but the provincial protocol says that dismissing only part of a cohort may not be feasible for the majority of cases. Officials might not be able to verify what physical distancing was maintained in the classroom – children might move around, for instance. Also, making individual risk assessments within a cohort might identify the person with COVID-19 to others in the group, the protocol says.
Those decisions will have a major impact on parents, who face the prospect of having their children who are found to be close contacts sent home to self-isolate.
That has already happened at nine of Ottawa’s French-language schools that have had 11 cases of people with COVID-19.
Students who have any symptoms of COVID-19 – which could include anything from a runny nose to a sore throat, cough or nausea – are expected to stay home.
Students attending in-person classes who must remain at home because they have symptoms, have COVID-19 or are close contacts will receive instruction from their regular classroom teacher, who may provide them with assignments, for example.
Extended day programs
The before-and-after school childcare centres that operate in conjunction with schools will open. However, fewer children have enrolled, with staff estimating a drop of about 50 per cent compared to last year.
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School councils will operate but meet by video conference.
The virtual schools will probably have their own school councils. Staff are getting legal advice on whether parents can join the council at their home school if their children are studying online at home.
Public health nurses
Some of the new public health nurses funded by the province as part of COVID-19 safety plans are now on the job in the district. They are helping schools set up isolation rooms where children who come down with symptoms at school are taken until their parents pick them up. The nurses will also help with education and tracing contacts of people who have the virus.
Mask exemptions in schools
The board is developing a guideline for masks, which are required for students in Grades 4 to 12 and recommended for younger students.
The guideline will emphasize education and helping students learn how to wear a mask and feel comfortable doing so. However, “progressive discipline” may be imposed for students who refuse to wear one, staff said.
The board plans to develop a form for parents to request an exemption from mask-wearing for their child, based on medical reasons. Requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.