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Ontario Opposition leader calls on Ford government to announce ‘safe schools for September plan’

Ontario's official Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath and local Grade 3/4 teacher Erika Mark hold a news conference in Peterborough on June 29, 2021. Mark Giunta/Global News

Tuesday marked the final day of the school year for thousands of Ontario students.

It was a school year that was difficult for many with months of at-home virtual learning while school buildings were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And that’s why Ontario’s Official Opposition leader Andrea Horwath says she’s calling on the Ford government to create a “safe schools for September plan” immediately.

Read more: COVID-19 — Doug Ford defends not reopening Ontario schools

The NDP leader made the ask at a media conference at Confederation Park in Peterborough on Tuesday.

“Schools can get back into the swing of things in September in a way that is clearly supportive of our students as well as safe and that’s what we’re asking Doug Ford to do,” Horwath told reporters.

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“So what does that look like? Obviously, more mental health and well-being supports at the schools where the kids will be. It means making sure there’s enough education workers and education support workers to provide that one-on-one attention that we know our kids will desperately need. That means investment.”

Horwath said she wants the government to announce and fully fund a plan that includes:

  • A classroom cap of 15 students.
  • Upgrades to ventilation systems to meet the latest standards and science on airborne transmission of COVID-19.
  • Offering two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to every teacher, education worker and student over 12.
  • More in-class supports for kids with special needs or learning challenges.
  • In-school mental health and wellness supports.

“It’s been a rough year. The pandemic has affected my family in so many ways,” said Erika Mark, a parent to two children and a Grade 3/4 teacher in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.

“My kids survived the school year but schools need better resources to help all students thrive. Smaller class sizes, improved ventilation, counsellors in schools, and supports for students with diverse needs — anything less is unacceptable. Pivoting back and forth is hard on everyone. We cannot have another school year like the one we just had.”

Global News Peterborough asked Peterborough-Kawartha MPP Dave Smith about funding supports for student mental health.

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“It’s one of those things we recognized off the bat. Moving back and forth between virtual learning and in-class learning was stressful for all. Not just for the students, but the parents, teachers and boards and so on,” he said.

“We invested a little over $80 million this past school year specifically for mental health supports for those kids. That’s a 400 per cent increase in mental health funding. Minister (of Mental Health and Addictions Michael) Tibollo has added an additional $35 million earmarked for our youth specifically for the Kids’ Help Line that has seen some increases. We’re doing the same thing for the fall of ’21-22; $80 million earmarked for mental health for students.”

Read more: $26M for upgrades for Peterborough area public, Catholic schools to protect against COVID-19

In April, the provincial and federal governments jointly announced $26 million for upgrades for Peterborough-area public and Catholic schools to protect against COVID-19: $10.75 million for Kawartha Pine Ridge, $8.3 million for the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board and $7.48 million for Trillium Lakelands District School Board.

The funding was touted as supporting building retrofits, updates and upgrades to schools and co-located child-care facilities.

Projects could include HVAC renovations, installing water bottle refilling stations and space reconfigurations to enhance physical distancing.

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“Our expectation over 96 per cent of schools in Ontario will have upgraded their ventilation and put in localized air exchangers where they couldn’t make changes to the HVAC system,” Smith said.

“Basically, there have been significant upgrades made over the last eight months and we should have them finalized by September. With the schools not being opened in July and August, it gives us a great opportunity to get that work done.”

Global News Peterborough asked Horwath if that met part of what she was asking for in her plan.

“A couple million dollars or $20 million, I don’t know if it will get rid of the repair backlog here in these school boards,” Horwath replied.

“I can tell you, what the government has provided in maintenance and repairs or funding towards some of those initiatives, is nowhere near the $16 billion in repair backlog that we now have.”

Provided there are no delays to the next school year, it will begin on Sept. 7.

Global Peterborough contacted the Ministry of Education for comment on this story.

In an email late Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson stated “we’ll let the interview you had with MPP Smith stand today for comment from the province.”

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