Safety top priority as Catholic schools stay closed

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford

By Mickey Conlon

ONTARIO, Canada, (The Catholic Register) – Partners in Catholic education are in agreement with Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to cancel in-class learning for the rest of this school year.

Schools across Ontario won’t be re-opening until at least September as the province has cancelled classes, though the distance learning component in place since April due to the coronavirus pandemic will continue until the end of the school year in June.

The province pulled the plug on after consultations with the chief medical officer of health and other medical experts.

“The safety of our children is my top priority,” said Ford at his May 19 pandemic update. “We cannot open schools at this time. I’m just not going to risk it.”

Ford said students who were on track to graduating from high school this year will be able to graduate and all students will receive report cards.

Catholic teachers, trustees and school boards are on board with the province in putting safety at the top of the agenda. While some may be disappointed in the decision, Shazia Vlahos said the Toronto Catholic District School Board recognizes “that this decision was made out of an abundance of caution to ensure the safety and well-being of students, our staff and our communities.”

“Distance learning will continue until the end of June and we will continue to communicate with families once more information becomes available about what they might expect when schools re-open or summer programs,” said Vlahos, the TCDSB’s chief of communications and government relations.

“Our association agrees with the need to take a cautious approach to re-opening schools, while continuing to do what we can to foster students’ development and well-being,” said Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association. “To this end, Catholic teachers will continue giving our best efforts to support students and families through the emergency distance learning program.”

“The safety and well-being of students and staff is the leading priority for Catholic school boards as we look ahead to the reopening of schools in the new school year,” said Beverley Eckensweiler, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said a plan for reopening schools will be released by the end of June and will include measures to ensure physical distancing and restrict the movement of students at school.

Stuart did express concerns that the province has not engaged with its partners regarding many details to be considered before schools open again. Teachers have had minimal input on closures and distance learning, said Stuart, adding they should be in the conversation surrounding safety precautions, learning conditions and mental health supports.

“It is imperative that the government immediately engage in genuine dialogue with teachers and other education workers to allow sufficient time to develop a comprehensive plan for re-opening that includes all necessary perspectives,” said Stuart. “This is especially urgent if the government is planning for a possible in-class element to the summer learning program.”

Students have been out of class since mid-March, just before March Break, and have been doing distance learning at home since mid-April. The province launched an online learning portal and teachers have been continuing lessons in various ways. This new reality has been a steep learning curve and one not without its share of growing pains, particularly with parents who continue to work from home and can’t take as much time as needed to aid their children.

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