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Parents, teachers rally at Queen's Park for return to full-time classes this fall

Demonstrators want province to invest in 'logistical and safety protocols necessary'
July 23, 2020
Muriel Draaisma

Parents and teachers called on the Ontario government on Wednesday to reopen schools this fall for full-time learning.

Demonstrators gathered at Queen's Park at a physically distanced rally to demand that all three levels of government make public education a priority amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The demonstrators said they want to see governments invest in the "logistical and safety protocols necessary" to ensure schools can reopen safely for five days a week in September with children, teachers and support staff protected from the novel coronavirus.

Bronwen Alsop, an organizer of the rally and an early childhood educator, said schools matter more than bars, which are slated to reopen for indoor service during Stage 3 of the province's economic recovery plan.

She said a plan for schools should have already been in place. A plan that would combine online learning with some days in class is not acceptable to parents, she said.

"The hybrid plan does not work. They are putting our children more at risk and the teachers." she said.

"I have had it. I don't want to be fooled anymore. I don't want anyone thinking that this is a plan to keep us safe."

Ontario's education ministry has asked all 72 of the province's school boards to prepare plans for three possible scenarios: a full-time return to in-person learning, virtual classes for all, or a hybrid model that combines the two.

Boards must submit plans for all scenarios by early August, which will then be subject to government approval before they can be implemented.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce originally said hybrid learning was the government's preference, but has since indicated a preference to see all students back in class full-time.

MPP Marit Stiles, the New Democrats' education critic, told the crowd she supports the goals of the group in pushing for full-time learning in September. She said the province is not working "fast enough" on a plan to reopen schools.

"This is absolutely essential for economic recovery," she said. "I'm a parent. I feel your pain. I want you to know we have your back."

Later, in a tweet, she said: "A safe, full and funded return to school is critical to our kids and the economy."

The group, according to a Facebook page on the event, says: "We strongly believe that a full-time return to education is necessary for an equitable economic recovery."

Province says it's aiming to get kids in class
Alexandra Adamo, spokesperson for Lecce, said in an email on Wednesday that the province is working with health professionals to determine how best to proceed with school this fall and to implement safety protocols that would be needed to prevent spread of the virus.

"Our single greatest priority is the safety of students, staff, and their families," Adamo said in the email.

"We are preparing for all scenarios to ensure, whatever challenge emerges in the fall, Ontario is ready to keep students learning. While our aim is to get students in class on a daily basis, it must be safe to do so," she added.

"We will do whatever it takes to keep students safe."

Adamo said the province is investing in mental health supports, technology, internet expansion, support for staffing and cleaning supplies to keep students safe.

But Leila Canon-Ahern, a mother of two children and a demonstrator at the rally, disagreed. Canon-Ahern said she works full-time.

"I feel that this government has really let parents down. I feel that women are being pushed out of the workforce. And we're not being offered a solution. We're not being offered a funded plan," she said.

"I'm here because I'm a feminist and I support women having options. And I think that we need a properly funded plan for a safe return. This government is not giving us a chance to plan for anything."

2 school boards opposed to hybrid plan
The Toronto District School Board has asked the province to reassess its plans for school in the fall, particularly the hybrid plan, saying it would force parents to choose between their jobs and educating their children.

It urged the province to "strongly consider" working parents with young children, single parent households and low-income families in its plans.

The Halton District School Board, meanwhile, has asked the province to withdraw its hybrid plan altogether as an option for students in kindergarten to Grade 6.

"A model that relies on alternating a student's time between the classroom and out-of-school child care creates opportunities for mixing students from different settings (e.g. classrooms, schools, school boards) and as a result increases their exposures and elevates students' risk of infection," the board says in a July 16 letter to the province.

It said the hybrid plan relies heavily on affordable child care to work, and if licensed spaces are not available, parents would have to use unlicensed child care, or leave the labour force on "out-of-school days," or leave children home alone or in the care of older siblings.