TORONTO - Talks between Canada's largest school board and the Ontario government to cut elementary class sizes and address pandemic safety concerns continue after the province rejected a board plan that would have shortened daily class time for students.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Monday that the government and Toronto District School Board officials are meeting to discuss back-to-school plans after the province rejected the board's initial proposal on Friday.
It would have seen the board spend $20 million to hire more teachers and cut elementary class sizes to between 15 and 20 students depending on the grade.
The plan would have also required a change in the daily school schedule, cutting 48 minutes of classroom time to include teacher prep which is mandated by contract.
A typical class day has 300 minutes and anything less is not the preferred option, Lecce said.
"My hope is to work with the school board to ... maximize the amount of time a student has in front of their teachers while, yes, keeping classroom sizes low," he said. "It's not an either or proposition."
The board did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but will meet Tuesday to discuss next steps.
The inclusion of teacher prep time in the day was a major sticking point for the government and Premier Doug Ford appealed to union leaders to work with the government on the issue.
"I'm begging the teachers' union, just work with us," he said. "We want just a little bit more, and you shoot it down, it's just not fair."
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario said Monday afternoon it has not engaged in discussions about preparation time with the ministry or the province's school boards.
The talks come just weeks ahead of the start of school in September as teachers' unions and some parents continue to raise concerns about class sizes during the pandemic.
They have asked the government to mandate school boards to lower class sizes to maintain physical distancing and provide funding to ensure space can be leased and more teachers hired.
Last week, the government announced a plan that would see boards access $500 million of their own savings to achieve physical distancing in classrooms.
School boards have said they are concerned and frustrated by that decision.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said Monday the government needs to be flexible in its approach to the TDSB plan and it's effectively asking for unpaid work from teachers.
"If kids need a shorter day to stay safe, then the Premier has to stop saying he has the best plan in Canada and actually listen to what teachers, educators and hundreds of thousands of parents are asking for," he said in a statement.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government should adopt the TDSB's plan without delay instead of "creating chaos" in the school system.
"On one hand, Doug Ford says we shouldn't send kids back to overcrowded classrooms," she said. "But this government is refusing to work with the board to make that happen."
Meanwhile, Toronto Public Health announced Monday that it has created a team of 70 nurses to provide education and training sessions to school staff, parents and caregivers aimed a bolstering infection control and prevention.
The board of health has previously called for smaller class sizes to accommodate physical distancing, expanded use of masks and an enhanced testing strategy.
The city said it is working with both the TDSB and the Toronto Catholic District School Board to identify city real estate and spaces which can be used to support physical distancing.
"These proactive and responsible actions will help to reduce transmission in schools and ensure an effective response," board of health chairman Joe Cressy said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Ontario is reporting 99 new cases of COVID-19, with 83 more resolved cases of the virus on Monday.
The total number of cases now stands at 40,745, which includes 2,789 deaths and 37,036 cases marked as resolved.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 31 of Ontario's 34 public health regions reported five or fewer cases.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2020.