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Public board pleads with province to cover COVID-19 precautions

In a letter penned to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Ellen Chambers says it's inequitable for school safety measures to be covered out of local boards' reserve funds.
Lakehead Public School Board

THUNDER BAY –The chair of Lakehead Public Schools’ trustees said the board has already spent more than $1 million of its reserves to help with physical distancing in elementary classrooms.

Ellen Chambers want the province to kick in millions more to cover the costs of other COVID-19 prevention measures, mainly the hiring of new teachers, needed in Thunder Bay schools.

It’s not fair to expect boards across the province, each with varying reserve levels, to have to pay for upgrades and improvements to ventilation systems, personal protective equipment and additional teachers, support staff and busing to allow for better physical distancing.

Chambers and the trustees sent a letter to the province on Wednesday, asking Education Minister Stephen Lecce to consider releasing the money needed to cover the added costs, rather than simply freeing up $500 million in reserve funds from boards across Ontario to pay for the COVID-19-related expense.

The trustees want to be able to open schools as safely as possible during the pandemic, and don’t believe the current plan fully meets this criterion, she said.

“I think for everybody, it’s making sure we can get our class sizes down to a size that was recommended. I know there are all kinds of discussions about how large class sizes should be, but we all know, we’ve all been told as time has gone on, that we need to keep our distance, that we shouldn’t be in crowded spaces and that if we have children in this space, we’re very concerned about everybody in that space,” Chambers said.

Doing it with an empty wallet doesn’t work, she added.

Though unable to put an exact figure on what the board would need, Chambers said the number is in the millions.

Currently some classes in the higher elementary school grades have as many as 30 students, which makes it all but impossible to put a safe distance between children.  That’s double the 15 per cohort Premier Doug Ford is on record recommending.

Dipping into the board’s reserve funds could impact future education spending or capital projects and leaves less for emergency situations, especially if the COVID-19 restrictions carry on into the 2021-22 school year.

“What we wanted was the government to give us the money without us having to use the reserves and it’s a universal cry from school boards across the province,” Chambers said, adding reserves are for use in normal circumstances.

“This is not normal, at all,” she said.

Chambers said about 800 to 900 students have opted out of the in-class model and are taking their studies virtually online.

While classes can be larger than in-classroom models, they can’t be too large because teachers still need to be able to have one-on-one time with students, not to mention the added marking time.

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith has been the editor of Thunder Bay Source for 18 years and has served a similar role with since 2009. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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