How private schools are preparing for students' return to class
TORONTO -- Some private schools are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into sophisticated safety measures such as state-of-the-art ventilation systems, tents for outdoor classrooms and acrylic plastic barriers on every student’s desk — measures that one expert says most public schools simply can't afford.
Bialik Hebrew Day School, a private Jewish elementary school in Toronto, has spent “well into the six figures” on safety measures, according to the head of school.
“Not only do we want to keep ourselves and our community safe, but we have an obligation to the wider community to make sure we’re not doing anything to spread the virus,” Benjy Cohen told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Wednesday.
The school has purchased 1,500 Plexiglas barriers that will be placed on each student’s desk and disinfected every day. Two full-time nurses have been hired to check any students who show symptoms of COVID-19, and additional custodians are on site to frequently clean high-contact surfaces.
Bialik is hardly alone. Private schools across the country are investing in extra safety precautions that go above and beyond provincial regulations.
At Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Okotoks, just south of Calgary, six large tents have been set up outside and furnished to provide outdoor classrooms, which will be cleaned every night. The school is also providing portable Plexiglas trifold barriers that students can carry with them to different classrooms throughout the day.
Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school in Toronto, is installing new bipolar ionization technology, an air purifying system long used in food manufacturing that has been tested as a way to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Webber Academy in Calgary has established an “isolation room” for students who show symptoms, and will be “super cleaned” after each use. A similar isolation room has been set up at the University of Toronto Schools, a private school in downtown Toronto, and the space will be supervised by an infection protection and control nurse.
Plexiglas barriers have also been added to classrooms and office spaces at Turnbull School, a private elementary school in Ottawa. Director Gareth Reid says the school has doubled its budget for cleaning services and hired two new teachers to help guide at-home learning. Those two expenses alone cost more than $100,000, and that’s not including upgrades to the school’s air ventilation system and changes to water fountains to add bottle-filling stations.
“We’re lucky we’re a healthy school that can invest in the safety of our students and staff. It just makes perfect sense, it’s the morally appropriate thing to do. So it was never a question,” Reid told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Thursday.
Many private schools already offered smaller class sizes before COVID-19, a measure that teachers’ unions across Canada have been fighting with provincial governments over. Bialik has capped its classrooms at 22 students for Grades 4 to 8 and 15 students for junior kindergarten to Grade 1.
“The assumption being that younger children are a little less able to adhere to the distancing requirements and a little less able to monitor their personal hygiene,” Cohen explained.
The price of these safety precautions adds up, and Cohen says the school has gone into deficit and plans to fundraise to cover the costs. As well, subsidies are being offered to more parents this year who are having difficulty covering the $14,500 tuition fees.
But Cohen says the expenditures were necessary.
“The bottom line is health and safety isn’t something that we felt we could skimp on in any way.”
THE PUBLIC SECTOR
Those added safety measures are quite different from what’s happening in public school classrooms, according to the executive director of People for Education, a non-partisan advocacy group that studies public education across Canada.
“And partly it really has to do with money, when it comes right down to it,” Annie Kidder told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Friday.
"How much money are we collectively, as a society, how willing are we to spend the amount of money that would mean that you could really follow to the nth degree some of the recommendations from the medical and epidemiological community, in terms of distancing, in terms of Plexiglas barriers or staying outside?”
Last week, the federal government announced more than $2 billion in funding to help schools reopen safely. The money is earmarked for things such as enhanced air ventilation, more PPE and hand sanitation equipment and to adapt classrooms.
But Kidder says it would take billions more to match the measures in place in private schools, such as smaller class sizes.
“It would mean some significant structural changes in schools that for the most part, across the country, school boards haven’t been able to do because for most of the provinces and territories, they’ve put in some more money to respond to the pandemic, but not the huge amount it would take to make the classes very small, to keep the physical distancing to two metres we’ve been told about, and to put in that kind of operational investment into buildings,” she said.
In lieu of extra funding, some public school teachers have been finding creative ways to make classrooms safer. Kidder says she’s seen examples of teachers making their own DIY desk barriers from cardboard and plastic.
“I am watching teachers in school across the country, in public schools, trying to figure out extraordinary things, do-it-your self dividers for their kids’ desks, figuring out ways to make their classrooms feel engaging and like good places to learn while being safe to learn,” she said.
“So I think the kind of feeling of all-hands-on deck is there.”
In Ontario, $200 million is being spent on the province’s reopening implementation plan, which includes improvements to school’s HVAC systems and the hiring of custodians and additional teachers as required.
But the province’s four teacher unions, which represent 190,000 teachers and education workers, have said they will file formal appeals with the labour relations board over what they say is a violation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. They say the province must lower elementary class sizes and pay for the reduction, rather than insist that boards use their own reserve funds to lease extra space or hire more staff to encourage physical distancing.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford responded Wednesday by criticizing the head of one of Ontario's largest teacher unions, saying he would rather listen to doctors and epidemiologists than someone "with a degree in English literature who thinks he is a doctor.”
A similar rift is ongoing in Alberta, where the Alberta Teachers’ Association and Premier Jason Kenney disagree on how federal back-to-school funding should be spent. Kenney said it’s unrealistic to use the $260 million to cut class sizes in half, estimating that such a plan would cost $4 billion.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association accused Kenney of distorting their requests and artificially inflating the cost of class size reductions.
"Teachers and the Association have never advocated for reducing class sizes by half. What we would like to see are more resources and supports provided to school divisions and principals so they have more opportunities to reduce the size of our largest classes, especially at the upper grades,” union president Jason Schilling said in a statement.
"Too many teachers are already reporting class size assignments in the mid-to-high 30s.”
Debates about smaller class sizes were ongoing before COVID-19, but Kidder says the conversation has now shifted from one-on-one time with teachers to student safety.
“This goes back to a need for federal money, because we’re talking about thousands more teachers and support staff. So it would been very different from what has been done against across the country,” she said.
In Alberta, some private schools say they’ve received a higher number of applications this year due to COVID-19, in part due to guaranteed smaller class sizes. Turnbull School in Ottawa has also seen an uptick in interest, with the student body growing this year by about 7 per cent.
While his school administration is doing everything they can to create a safe school environment, Cohen says the highly infectious nature of COVID-19 means that there’s no guarantees against transmission in his school or elsewhere.
“We let parents know that we cannot promise — nobody can promise — a totally risk-free environment. We don’t want to pretend we can provide something nobody else can.”
With files from CTV Toronto and The Canadian Press