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The Start of the School Year – and Cutting the Risks

As the interesting and unusual summer of 2020 winds down, a dominant issue across Ontario and Canada is public education and the return of students to the classroom.

The reopening and restart of the education system is one of many issues during the current pandemic that has generated significant public interest. The debate is highly passionate around what measures the provincial government, school boards and individual schools should be implementing to keep students and their families safe and cut the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

The administration of the education system is generally the responsibility of provincial governments, however due to rising interest across Canada, the federal government is assuming a prominent position as demonstrated by their commitment of $2 billion on August 25 for basic functions such as improved air ventilation, hand sanitation, and extra personal protective equipment in schools across Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated MPs have been hearing from a lot of parents who are extremely anxious about school openings and it was therefore appropriate to allocate more federal resources into the education system. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce was supportive of this funding announcement, as it will assist parents with returning to work and provides assurances that sending students back to the classroom is the right decision.

The province of Ontario’s plans for reopening schools has provided unique challenges and issues for rural boards of education. While busing is an issue for all boards, it is inherently greater in non-urban areas of the province. A spokesperson for the Trillium Lakelands District School Board which covers a large area of central Ontario noted that 15,000 of their 16,000 students are bused daily.

Concern has been expressed by bus operators and drivers related to the potential number of passengers and regular cleaning procedures. The Waterloo Region District School Board is requiring students attending their facilities to wear masks and when a positive case of COVID-19 is diagnosed, bus routes and classroom cohorts will be reviewed within an environment that is stressful for students, parents and teachers.

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting complex issues to the Ontario education sector that require complex solutions. All the answers are not yet available, however, like many other public services, the system is moving forward.

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