Ontario education minister defends province’s back to school plan
SUDBURY -- Ontario's education minister is responding to growing concern and criticism over the province's back to school plan.
With just weeks to go until students across the province are expected to return to the classroom for the first time since March, many parents and teachers unions are raising concerns, saying there is just not enough time to get ready.
Earlier this week, Lecce announced that he was enabling access to reserve funds in order to reduce elementary class sizes and increase physical distancing; factors that have proven top of mind to many parents.
"These are unspent tax dollars from the ministry of education that boards have not spent totally so they're money that should be put to work for priorities like distancing and like more spacing when that's required," Lecce said in an interview with CTV Northern Ontario.
In response to criticism surrounding a refusal to mandate lower class sizes in elementary schools, Lecce said that distancing that can be achieved, coupled with mask wearing and hand hygiene efforts should prove for a safe return.
The government also announced that it was earmarking $50 million for improved HVAC systems across the province, providing better air filtration systems as students prepare to head back.
Union reps from northern Ontario schools have told CTV News that while they can appreciate increased funding, the timeline doesn't match up to improve HVAC systems and hire and train the additional staff needed.
They say at the best of times, it's not uncommon for boards in the north to be low on their supply chain roster. Lecce said he understands the concerns.
"I know in Northern Ontario this has always been a challenge, a unique challenge in trying to find access to those educators. Boards have been working with the ministry to ensure they have that access."
He said that training will happen in the three days prior to the first day of classes, saying Ontario is the only province to mandate training. Topics will include health and safety, racism and discrimination and online learning, ensuring teachers are prepared should schools be forced to close again due to a potential second wave of COVID-19.
Premier Doug Ford has shown increased frustration with teacher union representatives. At one of his recent daily press briefings, the premier cited his willingness to reach across the aisle, citing bipartisan relations that he has formed with the federal liberal government amongst others.
Lecce said it's possible unions are trying to re-litigate some issues from the bitter contract negotiations in the winter.
"I just think we need to decouple that," Lecce said.
"We've gone over that, we have got deals, ratified deals and I'm proud that we did that…the priority now is to move forward and work together dealing with a health pandemic that should transcend politics."