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School reopening plan leads to mixed emotions from parents, teachers

'It's a shock and disappointment. The disappointment actually comes from the additional info that seems to be smoke and mirrors,' says union official

The long-awaited plan to reopen Ontario schools was unveiled today and it has drawn mixed reviews from parents and teachers alike.

Thursday’s announcement on what the provincial plan for back-to-school on Sept. 8 looks like included many precautions. 

Along with mandatory masks for students in Grades 4 to 12, there will also be funding for more sanitary hand products and personal protective equipment (PPE). The province also says 500 public health nurses will be hired to assist with protocols. 

Elementary schools will not have any limits on class sizes. 

While high schools in some districts will limit class sizes to 15 students, there will be no such restrictions at Simcoe County high schools. 

Bobbi Jo Cote, whose kids are in Grades 2, 7 and 12, said she's divided on sending her children back to school in September. 

“I feel that this is the most important year for Grade 12 kids and trying to do online will be very hard on many of them,” Cote said. “Online is not everyone’s learning style and when you're applying to colleges and universities, you need the best chance you can get.”

And while she sees both sides of the argument, Cote is leaning on sending her kids back in September. 

“If it can be done safely, I think kids going back to school should be OK," she said. "We’ve opened daycares and camps and there has been no increase in cases. Parents need to teach their kids to be safe and make good choices.

"On the flip side, I’m a little nervous," Cote added. "We’ve been so careful and truly kept to our small bubble and really only visited people outside. We always wear our masks and carry hand sanitizer, so it’s a hard call. I do think I would send my kids back to school. I feel for their education needs and mental health, it is likely the best decision.”

Mary Cobeland has two kids, in Grades 5 and 10, and says she won’t be sending them in the fall because she doesn't feel safe doing so.

“No, they’re not going. People can laugh at me all they want; I don’t feel safe right now and, truthfully, online is a thing that was being used last school year,” Cobeland said. “This is what we should be doing to continue education. I’d like to know more on how my kids can learn online.”

Today's announcement by Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce included a plan that gives parents the option to keep their kids out of class, and stipulates school boards must provide options for remote learning.

It was a plan lauded by Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop.

“The health and safety of Simcoe North students, educators and their families obviously must come first, but there’s no question that children and teens benefit tremendously from social interactions with their peers, and direct in-person contact with their teachers,” Dunlop said in a release.

“I’m proud of our government for developing a balanced plan – backed by medical advice – that will protect the families of Simcoe North and still allow our kids to return to school safely.”

But Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) bargaining unit president Jen Hare said she is not pleased with the announcement and still has concerns what the reopening process will look like.

“It's a shock and disappointment. The disappointment actually comes from the additional info that seems to be smoke and mirrors,” Hare said. “If you look at the announcement of 500 public health nurses that will be assigned to schools, there are about 5,000 schools in the province. That’s one nurse for every 10 schools.”

Hare, who is a teacher at Eastview Secondary School, is concerned about what physical distancing looks like at the Grove Street East high school. 

“Eastview has about 2,000 students, as does Innisdale. We sometimes see 36 students in a class; space them out two metres and you may need a football field to accommodate classes,” said Hare.

Hare also says she's been hearing concerns from others since the provincial plan was unveiled. 

“I have over 100 text messages from many concerned staff, full of anxiety," she said. "We are going to have those who don’t want to return and we’ll have to see what that looks like.”

Hare said details contained in the provincial plan will be reviewed and there will be further discussions to express concerns.  

Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board spokesperson Pauline Stevenson said the board has been reaching out to people to find out where they stand on the upcoming school year.  

“We had previously sent a survey out to all of our families and staff to see how people were feeling about the three scenarios we were presented with before today’s announcement,” Stevenson said. “We’re going to take all that information and we will be able to gauge where our families and staff are in terms of how they feel about the return to school.”

Stevenson says it's still too early to speak about specifics and what today’s announcement means for the school year. Officials at the Catholic board will be taking the next few days to review the province's plan.

Officials at the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) were not available for comment by publication time. 

In a release from the public board, however, it notes all students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will return under a "conventional school day model subject to cohorting/timetabling considerations and enhanced public health protocols."

"Based on this direction, the SCDSB will finalize our reopening plan in consultation with the Ministry of Education and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit," the release says. "Further information, including information about health and safety, mental health and well-being and transportation, will be shared with families and the public as soon as details are finalized."