TORONTO — Students in Ontario can opt to take all their classes online when the new school year begins in September, but the province's education minister could not say Tuesday if a return to physical classrooms to finish the current academic year will be possible.
Stephen Lecce said the announcement will help parents and students prepare for the 2021-2022 school year, and give boards time to plan for all contingencies.
As for the current school year, Lecce would only say that the advice of the province's top doctor on classroom closures has not changed.
"The chief medical officer of health continues to analyze the data and providing advice to government," he said. "The premier's commitment is to not take a risk with your child, is to not compound the problem."
Ontario closed its schools to in-person learning indefinitely in mid-April as COVID-19 cases began to surge amid the third wave of the pandemic. Students are learning online as the province remains under a stay-at-home order.
While the province's vaccine rollout has begun to ramp up in recent weeks, and case rates appear to be slowly decreasing, the province said the online option will be available for the entire 2021-2022 school year for those who want it.
Lecce acknowledged that some parents may have concerns about sending a child back for in-person class this fall.
"That is a personal choice, and I don't think government is best positioned to make it for parents," he said. "What was important is that we provided that choice for this upcoming school year, and we provided more time to parents to make that choice."
The government said it will also keep measures like cohorting in place as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
Ontario said in total it will increase funding to school boards by $561 million next year to help address continued pandemic-related costs.
The province will spend a total of $25.6 billion on the education system in 2021-2022 – an increase of 2.2 per cent over the previous year.
School boards will be allowed to access their reserves, as they did last year, to help address pandemic costs.
The province will also extend $1.6 billion in COVID-19 supports to boards, including millions to upgrade ventilation, support learning recovery, and allow for flexible staffing.
The government said it will also continue funding for the purchase of personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing and replacement of devices.
It cautioned, however, that boards should only budget for half of those resources during the first half of the year, and that the remaining funding depends on vaccine distribution and public health advice.
Marit Stiles, education critic for the opposition New Democrats, criticized the announcement for focusing on online learning rather than investments that would allow students to safely return to class, such as smaller class sizes.
She said the announcement lacked clarity for families.
"We know that kids need safe classrooms, not permanent online learning," Stiles said.
She said online learning has been "absolutely horrible," with negative impacts on mental health and kids who lack high speed internet and space at home.
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation said the funding announcement will not keep pace with inflation, the cost of pandemic response measures and rising enrollment expected this year.
"It means that there is less money per student next year than there is this year," Harvey Bischof said. "It means there are fewer supports, and programs for students."
Bischof added that the government's hesitance to provide a definitive answer on the remainder of the school year is a failure to communicate.
"It erodes confidence in the system," he said. "It leads to uncertainty which we know leads to anxiety among parents, students and educators."
The president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario called Tuesday's funding announcement "smoke and mirrors" and said the increase is paltry when stacked up against pandemic costs.
"When you look at the funds required to pay for utility increases and other inflation-impacted costs, Ontario schools will be forced to operate with less funding than they had this year," Sam Hammond said in a statement. "Saying there is a growth in funding of 2.2 per cent is a gross exaggeration.”
The province reported 2,791 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 25 more deaths linked to the virus.
The Ministry of Health said that 2,167 people are hospitalized because of the novel coronavirus, with 886 in intensive care and 609 on ventilators.
Ontario said 88,871 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were administered since Monday's report, for a total of more than 5.4 million doses given in the province.
- with files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press