TORONTO – Class sizes in elementary schools should be cut to protect students and staff from COVID-19, Ontario’s registered nurses said Monday, suggesting schools should not reopen until all safety conditions are met.
The CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario said she made the request in a letter to the province’s chief medical officer of health, asking that elementary classes be capped at 15 students unless larger spaces like gyms can be used to provide physical distancing.
Doris Grinspun said the province’s back-to-school plan, which allows boards to use funds from their reserves to ensure the safe return of students, is not good enough.
“The safest approach to reopening Ontario schools is keeping elementary classes small,” Grinspun said in the letter to Dr. David Williams. “The announcement to unlock $500 million from school board reserves to improve ventilation and physical distancing was deeply disappointing.”
Premier Doug Ford has been under pressure since unveiling the province’s back-to-school plan weeks ago to cut class sizes at the elementary level.
Teachers’ unions and parents have expressed concern that the Ford government’s approach has not done enough to lower class sizes and encourage physical distancing.
In response, Education Minister Stephen Lecce gave school board’s permission to access up to $500 million in their own reserves to hire more teachers and lease additional community space to maximize space in classrooms.
Boards have said that much of that money is already allocated to key priorities not related to the pandemic.
On Monday, Ford said again that he remains confident in his plan, which has been approved by experts including Dr. Willliams.
“It’s challenging bringing back two million students and 160,000 teachers,” he said. “We want the best for our children and we have the best plan in the country.”
Grinspun said if the government isn’t cautious the school reopening could drive up COVID-19 cases across the province this fall.
“If this is the best plan in the country, it’s still not good enough,” she said. “We will hopefully not lose kids, but we will have wide community spread.”
On top of cuts to elementary class size, the nurses’ association also wants all students aged 3 and older to wear masks during school.
Grinspun did praise the government’s efforts to hire 500 more public health nurses to ensure they are in schools this fall, urging Williams to ensure they are hired for a two-year period.
The Ministry of Health could not immediately provide comment on the RNAO letter.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 105 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and one new death related to the novel coronavirus. It also reported 78 newly resolved cases of the virus.
The total number of cases now stands at 41,507, which includes 2,798 deaths and 37,673 cases marked as resolved.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 30 of Ontario’s 34 public health units are reporting five or fewer cases. She said that 19 health units are reporting no new cases.
The province was able to complete 18,790 tests over the previous day.