SUDBURY -- There appears to be some mixed reactions about a return to the classroom this fall in Northern Ontario among local unions and school boards. The province is recommending class five days a week for those regions deemed to be low-risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I guess my first reaction is disappointment," said Chantal Rancourt, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, Sudbury elementary unit. "We probably should not be surprised that the ministry was not going to back their language of 'we'll do anything it takes to keep people safe.'"

Rancourt said it's physically impossible with the limited space teachers have to keep students apart from one another in classes of 25-30 students.

"For the size of our classrooms and the number of kids in that classroom, many of my teachers have already reached out to me to state they will not be able to sit them one metre apart," said Rancourt.

More questions than answers

"I think my initial reaction is I had more questions than answers," said Liana Holm, newly elected president of Sudbury's Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, representing students in the Rainbow Board. "The news conference left me with a lot of worries and a lot of wondering."

Holm said the ministry appears to be favouring a one-size fits all solution in which kids are able to return to class.

A long-time educator, she said that's not going to work in the Rainbow District School Board, where the needs of kids differ between Sudbury, Espanola and Manitoulin Island.

"I had hoped that the government would have come back to us with a very comprehensive plan that we could just roll out," she said.

Both women said they've been incredibly busy dealing with concerns of members who are unsure of what the return to work will look like.

Holm said they know there are a lot of unknowns in the pandemic that have to be addressed.

"I'm talking to members and I keep telling them that this is the plan for today, it's just like a COVID test, you can get tested today and be negative and then tomorrow you can contract the virus," said Holm. "This could all change tomorrow depending on what happens in our area. It all differs area-to-area and we don't know what this is going to look like."

Have to be patient

Similar sentiments are being echoed by Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation Sudbury President Eric Laberge, who has been telling his members they're going to have to be patient.

"There's a change in tune from the government in terms of what they announced back in June as far as what the plans were going to be and who's responsible for them," said Laberge. "Now they've taken over and adopted a pseudo-one size fits all, one for southern Ontario and one for northern Ontario."

Laberge said the government didn't accept recommendations for smaller class sizes and he's getting a lot of concerned calls from his teachers, some who are wondering if their health is being put at risk.

"Obviously there's some trepidation, some anxiety in terms of what that's going to look like, despite the announcement yesterday it's still incumbent on the board to come up with a revised plan from what they were considering in late June," he added.

School boards will have to take the guidelines being set forth by the ministry to adopt how classes will look this fall.

Sudbury Catholic Board chair Michael Bellmore said they'll be looking for input from parents and will be working with the other three local boards to develop something similar in the city.

Work in progress

"There will be some changes to the school year and we've been waiting for this announcement so we can formalize our plan," said Bellmore.

He said it's been a constant work in progress and the administration staff at the board have been working non-stop to reach this stage.

They're currently sending a survey out to parents to get their input. They're hoping to have their final plan out to parents in the next week or two. The final decision will be up to parents if they're comfortable sending their child to school.

The board is currently looking at things like longer classes and splitting the semesters in half to keep high school classes with the same cohort.

"The ministry is helping us procure PPE because as you can imagine, PPE is a hard thing to get your hands on," Bellmore said. "School boards across North America across the world are in similar positions because everyone is looking for the same thing at the same time."

"Health officials are the overriding experts who are going to help us get back to school safely, so I think they're the ones we really need to consult with," said Jennifer Sarlo, the Algoma District School Board Chair.

"We're going to work hard to mitigate any kind of health risk for them, so I think it's a positive move, but we're looking for some guidelines from the ministry and public health over how we can mitigate any health issues we may have."

Sarlo said she's thankful to see the student swill be able to return.

First day of school this year is on Sept. 8.