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TDSB seeks more space for fall classes as parents weigh whether kids will attend

TORONTO — Canada’s largest school board is searching for additional spaces to hold classes this fall, but says it won’t know how many are needed — or where they’ll be located — until parents of elementary students confirm whether they’ll be sending their kids to school in person.

Some Toronto parents, meanwhile, say it’s hard to make that decision without having more details on what classes will look like at their children’s schools.

The Toronto District School Board this week approved a plan that would hire hundreds more teachers in order to keep elementary classes at no more than 20 students and kindergarten at no more than 15 in communities with a higher risk of COVID-19 spread.

The board says smaller classes may require additional locations, even once schools make use of all their available space.

Spokesman Ryan Bird says the board is working with the City of Toronto to identify potential space in community centres and other such locations, but it’s impossible to make those decisions without knowing exactly how many students are returning to in-person learning.

He says preliminary information suggests about 80 per cent of students will be attending school in person, which would leave four schools in need of more space.

But if significantly more choose to come back in person, Bird says additional spaces will need to be found.

“We are down to the wire. There is not a lot of time left to get everything done,” he said, noting that’s why the board has chosen to delay the start of the school year to Sept. 15.

“This is a monumental task to do this in time…. But now we can start moving forward.”

Registration notices will be sent to parents on Wednesday to clarify how many students will be going to school in person and how many will be learning remotely.

Some parents of elementary school students say, however, that it’s proving difficult to make an informed decision given the lack of details on how the reopening will play out at individual schools.

Nicole Rajakovic, whose children are eight and three years old, said she hasn’t heard whether her daughter’s school in downtown Toronto is one of those with classes capped at 20.

Some issues related to safety — such as whether the ventilation will be upgraded through provincial funding, or whether the tables students sit at will be replaced by desks — also remain unanswered, she said.

“How can I tell you whether I’m sending my kids back when I don’t know what you’re proposing?” Rajakovic said in an interview.

“So I don’t think any parent is making a truly informed decision. It’s really just ‘Can I afford to keep my kids at home?'”

It would also be helpful to know whether parents can change their minds down the line, she said, or if their decision now will lock them in for the rest of the school year.

The plan approved by the TDSB on Thursday will see the board spend roughly $30 million of its financial reserves, as well as more than $6 million in provincial funding, to hire more than 350 additional teachers. Another 400 teachers will be redeployed to allow for smaller class sizes.

Meanwhile, the City of Toronto said it has been in touch with the board regarding the possible need for space and is “waiting to hear what their specific needs will be.”

Toronto Public Health said it has provided the TDSB and the Toronto Catholic District School Board with guidance for a regional approach by identifying neighbourhoods that may have a higher risk of COVID-19 spread.

“This analysis is intended to be used in conjunction with other considerations when deciding on COVID-19 risk mitigation strategies in schools, such as space considerations for physical distancing,” the agency said in a statement.

“The evidence on COVID-19 continues to evolve, and as such, our method allows for flexibility and continuous updates based on available data.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Aug. 22, 2020.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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