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Parents grapple with unknowns as deadline looms for choosing if children will return to school

Families have until Friday to decide if their children will return to classes in September or take part in distance learning at Upper Grand District School Board schools
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With less than a month until area schools reopen, families have until the end of the week to decide whether their children will attend classes in person or through distance education at schools in the public board.

Aaron Blair says his family is one of many who are on the fence deciding whether to enrol their children for in-person classes or to instead opt for distance learning.

Families of children who go to school in both the Upper Grand District School Board and the Wellington Catholic District School Board have until Friday to decide.

“At the core of things, everybody wants to go back. Our kids want to go back, we want them back and teachers want to go back, at least the ones I have spoken to,” said Blair by phone Monday. “We just want them to do so under optimal conditions.”

Residents in Ontario have done a good job in flattening the curve to prevent a spike in new COVID-19 cases, said Blair. He wants to see every measure possible to be put in place to protect his two elementary school-age children if they are to return to school in the fall.

“I think most people in Public Health are predicting when we go back the cases will increase, we have seen that other places like Quebec when it happened there,” said Blair. 

He said his family is lucky to have the option to consider keeping his children at home, a luxury he realizes not every family has.

“For some people, they don’t have the option to make a decision to stay home if they have bills to pay and a household to maintain,” said Blair.

One concern is that many of the parents he is communicating with believe that secondary schools in Guelph will follow the Ministry of Education’s adaptive model for reopening, including class size limits of 15 and using some days at home with distance learning.

That is the case for some school boards, but not for the Upper Grand District School Board, says board spokesperson Heather Loney. Nor is it in the Catholic board.

The local boards are two of 48 boards in the province that are non-designated and will open schools under the conventional model. 

As a result, schools in the Upper Grand board will continue to adhere to the class size limits they had prior to the pandemic.

Loney said that doesn’t necessarily mean classes will be full in the fall. 

“We still have a lot that we have to work out. We are surveying all of our families right now to see how many of our students are actually going to be coming back in person, versus how many are going to elect to do online learning from home,” she said. “We have to organize our class sizes depending on how many people want to attend classes in person.”

Blair said that is a concern for his family. It will be difficult if not impossible for children in a full classroom to practice social distancing to a level deemed safe by the Hospital for Sick Children (Sick Kids), which offered guidelines the province used to inform its own plan for the schools reopening.

Blair said the ministry seems to have cherry picked only portions of the Sick Kids plan, while leaving out some of the social distancing requirements that would necessitate smaller class sizes. 

“I think about controls we haven our retail and our restaurants. It feels weird that a restaurant or a retail outlet has more oversight and standards and regulations to follow when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID compared to our schools,” said Blair.

Younger kids will have a harder time maintaining social distancing, said Blair. 

“It’s counter intuitive for them. Their kid instincts kick in. It’s going to be challenging to enforce that,” he said. “If we can’t stop kids from being kids, how do we bubble them as much as possible to make sure they are staying within their contact group and not cross-contaminating larger populations, which could contribute to a larger-scale spread?”

Loney said the board has been consulting with Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health every step of the way as it has been creating its plans for the reopening of schools.

“They have reviewed our plans for reopening. We also have staff guidelines that we are working on right now that Public Health will review,” said Loney.

Parents who decide on either in-person or distance learning will be able to change their minds, but only at certain set dates, said Loney.

“It’s not something that’s going to be able to happen on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis."

She said the board has heard concerns from parents about having to choose between in-person or distance learning for their children when not all of the information is available to make that choice.

“With all of the information that is coming out we understand that can be a bit overwhelming and also that there are some questions that we simply can’t answer yet because it is still evolving,” said Loney.

She also notes that the board has to be ready at a moments notice if the ministry or Public Health direct it to switch from the conventional model to the adaptive one, or even one that calls for exclusive distance learning.

“It’s possible, depending on the situation with COVID-19, that we might have to change to one of those other models in the school year and there is a potential we may have to make that change fairly quickly,” said Loney. “We are trying to be nimble, but also be as transparent to parents as we can be.”

A Parent Guide and FAQ have been posted on the board website at The Catholic board has also posted information.

Next steps for the board include supporting individual schools, which each have to come up with their own plans for reopening before the September reopening.

“Those could include things like what the first day of school will look like, pick up and drop off procedures, those sort of things,” said Loney.