Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the province’s education minister took a tour of a Toronto elementary school on Tuesday, getting a first-hand look at the health and safety measures being encouraged by Canada’s largest education board.
The Toronto District School Board has sent a series of documents to its more than 11,000 elementary school teachers with guidance on everything from how to ensure frequent hand washing amongst students to how to maximize physical distancing in classrooms.
While the information in the documents mostly comes in the forms of recommendations and not orders, it does provide a snapshot of what schools will look like when they reopen on Sept. 15 amid a global pandemic.
In a section titled “tips for setting up a classroom,” the board urges educators to keep “only essential furniture” in order to maximize space and to think critically about whether it is even necessary to have larger pieces of furniture, such as teacher’s desks or storage cabinets.
The board does concede that it is sometimes “important” to arrange desks in groups to ensure students “have an opportunity to collaborate with each other” but it asks teachers to consider “flexile seating” options wherein students would sit in chairs placed around the classroom and only access the desks in the middle if needed as a “workspace.”
In circumstances where desks do need to be arranged together for group work, the board says that they can be placed “in a cluster with space in between them” and that students can be reminded about the importance of sitting an arm’s length apart.
The board also recommends that students be seated diagonally across from each other rather than side by side and suggests strict limits on the number of students that can be seated at communal tables – two for small tables and three for larger tables.
“Using visual cues, placed directly on the tables, will support students in understanding how to maintain proper physical distance from each other,” the document states.
TDSB has said it can’t guarantee two metres of distance
The TDSB is spending nearly $30 million of its reserves and millions in provincial funding on the hiring of 366 new teachers in order to reduce class sizes.
The board, however, has warned that it will still be unable to guarantee two metres of physical distancing in all of its classrooms, as recommended by public health officials.
The guidance document shared with teachers attempts to provide recommendations on how they can ensure as much physical distancing in their classrooms as possible and includes several before and after photos depicting ways that desks can be rearranged towards that goal.
The document also touches on several principals of classroom organization during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the need to grant students the “flexibility to work in areas other than a table or desk,” such as in individual chairs or on seating mats and engage them as much as possible in “the co-construction of the learning environment.”
It also says that students must bring their personal items home with them each night in order to further maximize space in the classroom.
“When children are in the classroom, to the greatest possible extent efforts should be made toarrange the classroom furniture to leave as much space as possible between students,” the document states, without providing a specific standard for the space between students.
According to TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird, the guidance documents were first sent to school principals about a week ago and have been distributed to teachers over the last several days.
In addition to classroom organization, the documents also provides advice on a number of other health and safety topics, such as the movement of students through schools, hygiene practices and protocols around picks up and drop offs.
Speaking with reporters following a tour of Kensington Community School on College Street on Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford said that he believes the boards and individual schools are “ready” and have taken all the necessary precautions.
“We lined up like we were the students, went through the whole process and looked at the classrooms and to see how creative (Principal) Mr. (Daniel) Fisher has been was really amazing,” he said. “He is utilizing all the spaces whether it is the library or any other room that is available."