Incoming Toronto District School Board (TDSB) director Carlene Jackson says she knows she has a difficult task ahead of her when the new school year starts in the fall for the province’s largest school board and its nearly 250,000 students amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It will absolutely be challenging,” she said. “This is all new, so none of us have all the answers as to what this should look like or how this should look.”
Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce has recommended the province’s school boards begin their school year on Sept. 1 to “maximize instruction time for students,” but Jackson says it’s not a guarantee that TDSB will be able to meet that target.
“We’re currently doing an analysis of what that means for TDSB and what the implications are,” she said. “These are guidelines, and boards are encouraged to start by Sept. 1st but (Lecce) has not made it mandatory.”
In mid-June, Lecce also announced that students will most likely be taking part in an “adaptive” learning model when the school year begins, which would see a hybrid of online and in-school learning.
Jackson, whose term as director of education will begin on July 15, added that there are a lot of options currently on the table when it comes to which combination of at-home, virtual and in-class learning TDSB will implement.
“One of the big challenges is that everybody as a different viewpoint as to what schools should look like,” she said. “We are looking at models where perhaps kids would come for one week and then do remote learning for one week; perhaps it could be one day on and one day off, perhaps it may be a couple of days on with then a day off and then a couple of more days on.
“We’re just not quite sure yet, but those are some of the models we’re looking at.”
Jackson said there’s currently a steering committee, consisting of “many” educational experts, weighing the various pros and cons of each option, but she admits all of those options pose a unique challenge for parents.
“It will be challenging for families to manage their own situations, their work, life, et cetera because their children won’t be in school full time, and there are many different views on what’s optimal,” she said.
Jackson also adds that teachers will be faced with challenges when trying to keep students two metres apart in classrooms, even though the “adaptive” model would only allow a maximum of 15 students per class.
“The problem is that they’re not going to be used to staying six feet apart; they’re likely going to want to play and interact, so it would be challenging to keep those younger ones apart,” Jackson said. She did not provide a solution for how teachers could help keep children away from one another.
“As a parent, I completely understand why parents would be anxious about sending their children back to school and why they would be worried that schools won’t be safe, but we are putting in place every health and safety protocol that we can based on the advice by Toronto Public Health and other health agencies.”
Jackson adds that the school board is also currently weighing different transportation options and will select one once they’ve determined which learning model to implement for the school year.
“We need to start messaging (parents) as soon as possible with what this model is going to look like and what people can expect come September, so that’s one of the things we are working very hard towards,” Jackson said.
A preliminary plan will be presented to the committee of the whole on July 15, and then the school board will submit a final plan to the province for approval sometime in early August.
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