By MPP Toby Barrett
Most Ontario elementary and secondary school students are back in class.
Students in Haldimand-Norfolk returned to school February 8th based on input from the local medical officer of health and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. Thankfully, for the majority of secondary students, the return of in-person learning aligned with the start of their new term – quadmester or octomester. This was decided to avoid mixing student cohorts.
My office received countless emails and phone calls from parents, teachers and other community members who were very concerned with online learning. Although we all learned a great deal from online learning last spring, the consensus is that children of all ages learn better in the classroom and it is best for their mental health, development and future success.
Despite public pressure from families, teachers, SickKids and the pediatric community, the decision to send kids back to school was not easy and required cautious consideration. Returning Ontario’s students to school safely was the number one guiding principle. The government continues to take action by providing schools with additional resources to ensure the safety of students, staff and families.
Ontario recently made an additional $381 million in funding available to schools under the federal Safe Return to Class Fund. This funding will be used to improve air quality and ventilation in schools, support online learning; promote student mental health as well as to hire more staff. In total, Ontario’s publicly funded schools have received $1.6 billion in COVID-19 resources. Locally, the Grand Erie District School Board has received nearly $14.7 million while the Brant Haldimand-Norfolk Catholic District School Board almost $7 million.
Across Ontario, an additional 3,400 teachers were brought on board. Soon another 890 will be hired. Keeping our schools clean is a big job, pandemic or not, and to stay on top of the cleaning required to keep COVID out of the schools, nearly 2,000 additional custodians will be added to our schools. Over 650 additional educational assistants, mental health workers and professionals are now in the schools to lend a hand to those needing special education or mental health supports.
Further, to support the safe return of in-person learning, and to maintain in-person learning, Ontario has introduced new measures to continue the fight against COVID-19. These measures include:
· Province-wide access, in consultation with the local health unit, to targeted asymptomatic testing for students and staff;
· Mandatory masking for students in Grades 1-3, and masking requirement for Grades 1-12 outdoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained;
· Providing 3.5 million high quality cloth masks to schools to serve as back-up supply for Grades 1-12;
· Enhanced screening for all students and staff;
· New guidance discouraging students from congregating before and after school; and,
· Temporary certification of eligible teacher candidates who are set to graduate in 2021 in order to stabilize staffing levels, following high levels of absenteeism.
For more information on the safe reopening of schools, please visit https://www.ontario.ca/page/covid-19-reopening-schools.
Ontario is proud to lead the way in returning students to in-person learning. My staff and I have spoken to many parents and educators over the past few weeks, and we understand the tough job students, teachers and parents have had, especially in our rural areas where Internet is not always reliable. Schools have proven to be safe so let us work together to ensure we keep them safe so our learners and our teachers can stay in them.
Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk