PDSB’s next chance to move students into online learning isn’t until mid-November
September was a backward slide for Ontario in its fight against COVID-19.
The province began the month with 122 daily cases (on September 1) and ended it with 625 new infections on the last day.
In Peel, labelled a hotspot by Queen’s Park, school infections began even before classrooms reopened, when teachers and other staff started preparations in late August.
The viral spread has gotten much worse since.
Class sizes might go down even more in the PDSB as of November 18
According to the province’s weekly epidemiological update, between September 20 and 26, Peel Region recorded the second highest per capita rate of infection in the province with 38.5 cases for every 100,000 residents. Ottawa reported the highest rate with 43.9 cases. In Ottawa, the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, declared the city in a second wave on September 18. The city recorded 63 new cases that day, Peel recorded 96.
Within the last two weeks, Brampton reported its highest and second highest number of new daily cases since the pandemic began. On September 25, it recorded 98 cases, and on September 29, 84 cases were reported.
From September 25 to October 2, Peel recorded its highest average daily rate yet over any eight-day period since the pandemic began.
Last week, Premier Doug Ford declared the province is in a second wave and the federal government did the same, as numbers across many parts of the country reached the highest levels seen yet.
On Friday, Ford declared Peel one of three Ontario hotspots, along with Ottawa and Toronto, and imposed new restrictions, reducing the number of people allowed in restaurants and bars, while only six people can now be seated per table; only 10 attendees will be allowed in fitness classes, and only 50 people will be allowed in banquet halls.
The picture inside Peel’s schools has become increasingly worrisome.
As of Sunday, 62 schools in the two main boards reported cases of COVID-19, and 15 classrooms have been closed; no schools have been shutdown.
Initially, a large majority of parents seemed happy to send their children back to school. There were concerns about the province’s reopening plan and exactly how children would maintain a physical distance, but many parents decided, on balance, to send their children into the classroom anyway.
“I am concerned, but I am still sending them,” parent-advocate Romana Siddiqui explained to The Pointer on September 17. Her conundrum was representative of many parents in Peel: a healthy concern for their children, but not ready to hit the panic button either.
September 10 was the last chance parents had to ask for their children to learn from home, after that all decisions were set in stone.
However, as the province’s case count has grown at an alarming late since the end of August, with local numbers here among the highest in Ontario, the Peel District School Board (PDSB) has offered a second opportunity for those parents who have changed their mind. Families who no longer feel safe having their children in school and would prefer to have them learn at home will now have until 12 p.m. on October 14 to switch from in-person to online learning.
The move was announced late on Thursday night, the day before Ontario posted a record single-day increase in COVID-19 of 732 positive cases Friday.
Though many will be pleased with the flexibility, the changes will not come into effect for more than a month, which might cause some frustration, especially if infection rates continue to grow rapidly.
PDSB’s September experience of students switching learning models may have contributed to the delay. In the week before the last deadline, 10,000 students changed their preference, opting to learn at home. Taken by surprise, the board was forced to redraw its staffing plans, delay the beginning of online learning and recalibrate for the year ahead.
Some 54,600 elementary students in the Peel District School Board are now learning from home, almost half the overall elementary cohort in the board, which has about 57,300 students currently in class.
Cognisant of the chaos switching caused in September, PDSB is giving itself an entire month to process changes, with nothing officially coming into effect until November 18.
“Due to the considerable impact switching learning models has on staffing, physical distancing and students' continuous learning, transitions between learning models can only take place at key entry dates,” the board wrote in an email. “Families are strongly encouraged to avoid switching between learning models multiple times throughout the school year.”
While the board faces considerable organizational challenges if large numbers of families choose to change plans, many feel its the only option if leaders at the local, provincial and federal levels fail to get the virus under control. Unions have for months predicted problems in schools because of the provincial government’s failure to bring class sizes down, while a lack of proper restrictions in general has allowed infection rates across Ontario to climb.
As The Pointer has previously reported, almost half of all elementary students in the PDSB are already studying online; 49 percent of elementary students and 25 percent of high schoolers, percentages that will likely increase in November.
Remote learning has been less popular at neighbouring Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, where 30 percent of elementary students opted to learn from home. A quarter of secondary school students have chosen online teaching.
At both boards, new school cases of COVID-19 continue to be reported daily. Several different schools have closed classrooms and recorded multiple cases, according to dashboards maintained by both boards, which now show about a dozen cases have been resolved with most of those schools no longer reporting a case.
So far, Peel Public Health has not declared any outbreaks of COVID-19 in any school. An outbreak is defined as two or more positive test results where a clear epidemiological link can be made to demonstrate transmission within the classroom, a standard not yet met in the region.
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