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Reducing class sizes down to 15 students not on the table for public board

'I am extremely concerned with... class sizes,' says parent, adding 'we need to do better to protect our children'
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It would cost the Simcoe County District School Board an additional $600,000 per day to reduce all class sizes to 15.

At that rate, the board would burn through its entire $12.2-million reserve fund in about two weeks.

While multiple parents have reached out to BarrieToday to express concerns that the public school board is in the midst of restructuring classes – taking some class sizes into the 30s – on Wednesday night school trustees were presented with information on why the board is unable to significantly reduce class sizes during COVID-19.

“Throughout the summer, there was an incorrect expectation that classes are 15-to-1. I want to clarify that we have not been funded from the Ministry (of Education) for classes to be 15-to-1. Can you give me an idea of what it would cost if we were to move to 15-to-1, even though it’s not an option because we don’t have the space?” chairperson Jodi Lloyd asked superintendent of business and facility services Brian Jeffs.

While Minister of Education Stephen Lecce announced in the summer that the province would be “unlocking” board reserve funds to be used to create smaller class sizes, the province did not mandate the practice or provide additional funding themselves to make it happen, meaning school boards were tasked with trying to implement.

“I can tell you exactly where the 15-to-1 (number) came from. It came from Mr. Lecce in June, when he said that when classes went back they would not be any larger than 15-to-1. I saw that clip several times throughout the past few weeks on Twitter,” said trustee Peter Beacock, who represents Oro-Medonte and Springwater townships. “He has spoken about how class sizes are being lowered, but when he gives examples they are from schools that could actually do it.”

Trustees were also told that at a ratio of 20-to-1, the funding would last about two and a half months.

“By Christmas, we would have no reserve left and no known timeline for how the remainder of COVID-19 (would play out),” said Jeffs. “My personal opinion is we’ve made the right decision to not dip into reserves at this point in time.”

Tara Filteau has two children who attend Alcona Glen Elementary School in Innisfil. One of her children is in Grade 1 and has 18 children in their class. The other is in Grade 5 and has 26 children in their class.

“I am extremely concerned with... class sizes,” Filteau said. “Many of these classes are being dissolved this week and (children) forced into larger class sizes, in many cases 25 to 30 students per class. Some of these classes are in portables with no air conditioning and zero air flow, as we come into the winter months these numbers are unacceptable and unsafe.

"We need to do better to protect our children," she added. 

In an open letter Filteau sent to Lecce, local MPPs and the public school board, she talks about how difficult it was for parents to decide to send their children back to school knowing the risks, but that parents rely on the school system.

“We were promised smaller class sizes. What happened to this promise? Parents were led blindly into a false sense of security,” wrote Filteau. “It is impossible to socially distance in a class of 25 to 30 students. COVID cases are already showing up in our schools. These conditions are unsafe and need to be addressed immediately.”

Back at the public school board meeting on Wednesday, Barrie trustee Beth Mouratidis asked how class sizes compare this year to previous years.

As Sept. 29 will be the official reorganization day for in-class students at the public board, associate director of education John Dance was unable to provide firm numbers yet at the meeting, however he said the collective agreements on class sizes are being adhered to.

“The size of classes varies quite a bit,” Dance said. “We won’t have exact numbers until after reorganization takes place.”

Justin Jones’s oldest daughter started senior kindergarten this month at Cameron Street School in Collingwood. This week, he found out his daughter’s class was one of four kindergarten classes of about 20 students each that would be collapsed into three classes of about 26 students each.

“The biggest challenge is, what we’re getting is very different than what was promised. I think a lot of the rhetoric and promises that have come in particular from the provincial government and the minister of education is that all efforts will be made to keep class sizes low. What we’re seeing is the exact opposite of that,” said Jones.

“For us and our family, we were already anxious and nervous, but we felt that the risk was an acceptable trade off at a class of 20. We feel like the rules are being changed halfway through the game,” he said.

Jones expressed concern that with COVID-19 cases slowly rising locally and advice from the medical officer of health encouraging the reduction of social circles to prevent the spread of the virus, that it’s a bad time to be adding more contacts in schools.

“How do we try to achieve that by adding more kids and contacts into classrooms and expecting educators to try and maintain physical distancing? With four and five year olds, it’s unrealistic. It doesn’t take into account the reality of the situation and how kids actually behave,” he said.

Last week, the public board discussed restructuring with BarrieToday and said that it is a normal, annual process.

“I’m frustrated by the response we continue to get, which is that this happens every year and this is a regular thing they do. My response continues to be, this is not a normal year. This is not the time to apply that same thinking,” said Jones.

In total, the public school board has received $10.2 million from the provincial and federal governments for COVID-19 back-to-school protocols so far, and have also put $4.4 million of their own funds toward that purpose.