Transcript: Understanding the Return to School | Sep 15, 2020

Steve sits in the studio. He's slim, clean-shaven, in his fifties, with short curly brown hair. He's wearing a blue suit, checkered blue shirt, and checkered blue tie.

A caption on screen reads "Understanding the return to school. @spaikin, @theagenda."

Steve says AS EACH DAY PASSES, MORE AND MORE ONTARIO STUDENTS ARE BACK TO HITTING THE BOOKS - IN PERSON OR ONLINE. WITH US NOW FOR A WIDE-ANGLED LOOK AT THIS RE-OPENING PHASE: HERE'S CAROLINE ALPHONSO THE EDUCATION REPORTER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL, AND SHE JOINS OFF THE DANFORTH IN THE PROVINCIAL CAPITAL...

Caroline is in her early forties, with chin-length wavy brown hair. She's wearing a black blazer over a blue blouse.

Steve continues CAROLINE, IT'S GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN. YOU JUST WATCHED THOSE INTERVIEWS BY THE TEACHER UNION HEADS. WHAT STOOD OUT FOR YOU?

The caption changes to "Caroline Alphonso. The Globe And Mail."

Caroline says I THINK ONE OF THE THINGS THAT STOOD OUT, ONE WE'VE BEEN HEARING ABOUT QUITE A BIT OVER THE LAST LITTLE WHILE, IS THE ISSUE OF CLASS SIZES AND HOW IS THAT PLAYING OUT IN SCHOOLS ACROSS THE PROVINCE. WHAT WE'RE SEEING WITH CLASS SIZES IS THAT A LOT OF PARENTS MORE RECENTLY IN SOME OF THE LARGER URBAN WARDS HAVE BEEN OPTING OUT OF THAT IN-CLASS LEARNING AS A RESULT OF THAT AND GOING INTO VIRTUAL SCHOOLS. AND THAT WAS SORT OF, YOU KNOW, DISCUSSED A BIT BY THE THREE UNION LEADERS JUST BEFORE THIS SEGMENT.

Steve says YEAH. DO YOU, BASED ON YOUR REPORTING, KNOW OF ANY, YOU KNOW, MAJOR BOARDS OR MAJOR SCHOOLS IN THIS PROVINCE WHERE THEY ARE ACTUALLY FIGURING THAT OUT TICKETY-BOO, THEY'VE GOT THE DESKS TWO METRES APART, THE VENTILATION IS GOING, IT'S GOING EXACTLY THE WAY IT SHOULD BE?

The caption changes to "Caroline Alphonso, @calphonso."

Caroline says I DON'T THINK IT IS SMOOTH SAILING FOR ANYBODY RIGHT NOW. IT'S A DIFFERENT YEAR. IT'S A YEAR LIKE NO OTHER. WE'RE SEEING SOME INCREASES IN INFECTION RATES OUTSIDE IN THE COMMUNITY IN SOME AREAS OF THE PROVINCE. KIDS ARE RETURNING TO SCHOOL RIGHT NOW A BIT ANXIOUS. PARENTS, ESPECIALLY, ARE A BIT ANXIOUS. MAYBE THE KIDS NOT SO MUCH. MANY OF THEM ARE REALLY LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING THEIR FRIENDS. BUT PARENTS ARE A BIT ANXIOUS. AND I THINK THINGS ARE SORT OF JUST PLAYING OUT. EVERYBODY IS SEEING HOW THE RETURN TO SCHOOL GOES, MAKING CHANGES AS KIDS RETURN TO THE CLASSROOM.

Steve says I GUESS I SHOULD TAKE ADVANTAGE OF YOUR EXPERTISE AND YOUR BEING HERE TO GET YOU TO FACT-CHECK THAT LAST DISCUSSION AS WELL. IS THERE ANYTHING THAT ANY OF THE THREE SAID THAT YOU THOUGHT, WAIT A SECOND, THAT'S JUST NOT ACCURATE?

Caroline says I DON'T KNOW IF WHAT THEY SAID WAS INACCURATE. I MEAN, THERE WAS ONE POINT WHERE YOU MENTIONED THE FACT THAT THEY'RE LOOKING TO INCREASE THEIR MEMBERSHIP, AND THAT'S WHY THEY WANT SMALLER CLASS SIZES. I DON'T KNOW, FROM WHAT I'M HEARING, HOW ACCURATE THAT IS. YOU KNOW, A LOT OF TEACHERS WHO WOULD BE ASSIGNED TO CLASSROOMS RIGHT NOW TO LOWER CLASS SIZES WOULD BE LONG-TERM OCCASIONAL TEACHERS. THEY WOULD BE ON CONTRACTS AT THE MOMENT. SO THEY WOULDN'T BE FULL-TIME MEMBERS RIGHT AWAY TO LOWER CLASS SIZES, FOR EXAMPLE.

Steve says GOTCHA. JUST FOR THE RECORD, I WAS REPEATING WHAT A GOVERNMENT SOURCE HAD SAID.

Caroline says CORRECT.

Steve says WHY WOULD WE WANT TO HIRE ALL THESE PEOPLE WHO WOULD THEN GO AND WORK AGAINST US DURING THE NEXT ELECTION CAMPAIGN. RIGHT.

Caroline says OF COURSE.

Steve says YOU KNOW, HAVING SAID THAT, WHAT IS BEING UNDERTAKEN RIGHT NOW IS UNPRECEDENTED IN OUR LIFETIMES. WE ARE TRYING TO SEND, YOU KNOW, AS MANY AS TWO MILLION... IT WON'T BE THAT MANY, OBVIOUSLY... BUT AS MANY AS TWO MILLION CHILDREN BACK INTO THE CLASSROOM UNDER LESS THAN IDEAL CIRCUMSTANCES. IS THERE AN UNDERSTANDING OUT THERE THAT THE GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO BE CUT A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF SLACK BECAUSE WE ARE IN UNPRECEDENTED TIMES?

The caption changes to "It's showtime!"

Caroline says OH, BOY, STEVE. I GUESS, YOU KNOW, YOU ARE CORRECT ABOUT THE UNPRECEDENTED TIMES AND THE FACT THAT MAYBE PERHAPS NO GOVERNMENT HAS GOT THIS RETURN TO SCHOOL QUITE JUST RIGHT YET. BUT, FROM WHAT I'M HEARING IS THAT THERE WAS NOT ENOUGH PERHAPS PLANNING GOING ON IN THE EARLY DAYS OF THE SUMMER. YOU KNOW, WE ONLY GOT THE BACK-TO-SCHOOL PLAN IN LATE JULY, EARLY AUGUST. AND EVEN THEN, THERE WERE A COUPLE OF BOARDS... TORONTO IN PARTICULAR, OTTAWA... THAT HAD TO REVISE THEIR PLANS AT THE VERY LAST MINUTE AND GET THINGS ROLLING. AND TO THIS DAY, WITH VIRTUAL LEARNING BEING DELAYED AT A COUPLE OF BOARDS, THEY'RE STILL REVISING PLANS. SO SHOULD THEY HAVE RECEIVED SLACK? I'M HEARING THAT PERHAPS THEY NEEDED TO DO SOME ADVANCED PLANNING, SOME CREATIVE PLANNING THAT NEEDED TO TAKE PLACE IN THE MONTH OF JUNE AND PERHAPS EVEN EARLIER.

The caption changes to "Watch us anytime: tvo.org, Twitter: @theagenda, Facebook Live, YouTube."

Steve says HMM. AND WHY DIDN'T THAT HAPPEN?

Caroline says YOU KNOW, THE GOVERNMENT IN JUNE LAID OUT THREE SCENARIOS FOR BACK TO SCHOOL. THERE WAS THE ONLINE, THE HYBRID MODEL, AND THE FULL-TIME LEARNING. AND THEY KIND OF LEFT IT THAT WAY. AND SCHOOL BOARDS, INDIVIDUAL SCHOOL BOARDS, WERE PLANNING FOR ALL THREE MODELS AND WERE SUPPOSED TO PRESENT THOSE MODELS TO PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT. FROM WHAT I UNDERSTAND, SCHOOL BOARDS WERE WORKING QUITE HARD OVER THE SUMMER MONTHS TO COME UP WITH THOSE SCENARIOS, TO PRESENT THEM, AND THEN THEY DID AND SOME OF THEM WERE REJECTED IN THE END. SO, YOU KNOW, I FEEL LIKE THERE NEEDED TO BE MORE CREATIVITY, MORE CREATIVITY ON HOW TO BUILD OUTDOOR SPACES FOR KIDS TO LEARN. WHAT OTHER SPACES COULD BE USED FOR KIDS TO LEARN IN ORDER TO LOWER THOSE CLASS SIZES WHICH PARENTS ARE REALLY DEMANDING?

Steve says YOU SAY SOME OF THOSE PLANS WERE REJECTED. REJECTED BY WHOM?

Caroline says BY THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION. THE TORONTO BOARD IN PARTICULAR HAD A PLAN IN PLACE WHERE KIDS COULD END THE SCHOOL DAY EARLIER SO THAT TEACHERS' PREPARATION TIME COULD BE USED AT THE END OF THE SCHOOL DAY. AND THAT WOULD KEEP A TEACHER WITH A COHORT FOR THE ENTIRE DAY AND IT WOULD LOWER CLASS SIZES, AND THE PROVINCE SAID NO. WE WANT KIDS LEARNING FOR 300 MINUTES A DAY... A WEEK, SORRY. THAT'S WHAT WE WANTED. THEY ALSO MADE SOME PROPOSALS AROUND HIGH SCHOOL CLASS SIZES... NOT CLASS SIZES, HIGH SCHOOL LEARNING, AND HOW THE COHORTS WOULD WORK, AND THAT PLAN WAS ALSO... IT DID NOT RECEIVE A RUBBER STAMP FROM THE PROVINCE SO THEY HAD TO GO BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD AND REDO THOSE PLANS.

Steve says IS THAT THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION THAT DESERVES, YOU KNOW, CALLING OUT ON THIS? BECAUSE I'M... WE'RE IN A BUREAUCRATIC MOMENT NOW WHERE THE MINISTER OR THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION CAN SAY, YEAH, BUT I DIDN'T GET THE SIGN-OFF FROM THE LOCAL PUBLIC HEALTH OR THE PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICER. WHERE DOES THE BUCK STOP ULTIMATELY ON THIS DECISION?

Caroline says IT IS WITH THE GOVERNMENT, IT IS WITH THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION. THE GOVERNMENT IS THE ONE THAT LAID OUT THE PLANS FOR BACK TO SCHOOL AND HOW THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO WORK. SCHOOL BOARDS TOOK THOSE PLANS AND TRIED TO IMPLEMENT THEM THE WAY THEY SHOULD BE IMPLEMENTED OR THE WAY THEY THOUGHT THEY SHOULD BE IMPLEMENTED, AND THEN THEY SUBMITTED THOSE PLANS AND THEN THERE WERE CHANGES MADE. CHANGES MADE PERHAPS AT THE LAST MINUTE. AND SO MAYBE THE PLANS WERE NOT ARTICULATED PROPERLY TO THE SCHOOL BOARDS. MAYBE THERE WAS SOME CONFUSION THERE. AND REALLY THAT TIME WAS WASTED. THAT TIME OF CONFUSION WAS WASTED WHEN BACK-TO-SCHOOL PLANS COULD HAVE BEEN ROLLED OUT MUCH MORE SMOOTHLY THAN THEY ARE RIGHT NOW.

Steve says CAROLINE, WE KNOW ALREADY THE... WELL, CERTAINLY THE HIGH SCHOOL FOR THE TORONTO DISTRICT SCHOOL BOARD HAS BEEN DELAYED, THE OPENING HAS BEEN DELAYED TWICE. OF COURSE, USUALLY IT'S THE DAY AFTER LABOUR DAY. THEN THEY SAID TUESDAY OF THIS WEEK, WHICH WOULD BE TODAY. NOW THEY SAID THURSDAY FOR THIS WEEK. ARE YOU, BASED ON YOUR REPORTING, ARE YOU SATISFIED THAT EVEN WITH THE DELAYED OPENING THE SCHOOLS ARE AS PREPARED AS THEY CAN BE TO HANDLE WHAT THEY'VE GOT TO HANDLE?

Caroline says I THINK... SO THE DELAY IS FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS. I KNOW MY LITTLE ONE, MY ELDEST, STARTED SCHOOL TODAY IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. MY YOUNGEST STARTS TOMORROW. AND THEY HAVE DELAYED VIRTUAL LEARNING AND THEY DELAYED THAT TWICE BECAUSE OF THE NUMBER OF STUDENTS IN TORONTO THAT HAVE OPTED... OR THE NUMBER OF FAMILIES IN TORONTO THAT HAVE OPTED TO GO ONLINE AS WELL. HAVE THE PLANS... ARE THEY READY? IS THAT THE QUESTION, STEVE? YOU KNOW, TIME WILL TELL. KIDS ARE IN SCHOOL RIGHT NOW IN TORONTO IN THE CATHOLIC BOARD AND THE PUBLIC BOARD. WE'LL SEE HOW THE WEEK GOES.

Steve says YOU KNOW, I DO WONDER... WE TEND OBVIOUSLY IN THE PROVINCIAL CAPITAL TO THINK THAT MOST OF WHAT HAPPENS HERE SPEAKS FOR THE WHOLE PROVINCE, AND OF COURSE IT'S NOT THE CASE AT ALL. WE KNOW THAT...

Caroline says THAT'S RIGHT.

Steve says AS CLOSE AS TWO HOURS' DRIVE NORTH OF HERE, THERE'S ESSENTIALLY NO COVID AT ALL. IN MUCH OF, YOU KNOW, RURAL AND NORTHERN ONTARIO, VERY SMALL OUTBREAKS IN MUCH OF THE PROVINCE. BUT IN A LOT OF THE PROVINCE, THERE'S NOTHING GOING ON AT ALL. TO THE BEST OF YOUR KNOWLEDGE, WHERE THERE IS NO COVID, ARE THINGS FAIRLY NORMAL IN THE WAY THAT THEY ARE GETTING BACK TO SCHOOL?

Caroline says I THINK WE HAVE TO REMEMBER THAT WE MAY NOT EXPERIENCE THE SAME THINGS IN THE NORTH AS WE DO HERE BUT ONE OF THE THINGS THEY'RE SEEING IS THE ISSUE OF SCHOOL BUSES AND SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS THAT WE NEED TO KEEP IN MIND. THERE'S NO LIMIT TO THE NUMBER OF KIDS ON A SCHOOL BUS AND SOMETIMES THOSE KIDS ARE RIDING THE BUS TWO HOURS A DAY TO GET TO THEIR SCHOOL. THERE'S NO LIMITS. THERE'S A SHORTAGE OF BUS DRIVERS. SO HOW DO YOU GET THOSE CHILDREN TO SCHOOL? HOW DO YOU GET THEM THERE ON TIME WHEN PARENTS ARE WORKING? SO THERE ARE OTHER COMPLICATIONS IN DIFFERENT BOARDS THAT ARE STILL BEING IRONED OUT.

Steve says I DID HEAR ANDREA HORWATH, THE OPPOSITION LEADER POINT THAT VERY THING OUT, A LOT OF BUS DRIVERS ARE NERVOUS ABOUT SHOWING UP TO WORK BECAUSE THEY HAVE 50 OR 55 KIDS IN THE BUS AND YOU CAN BE SURE THEY'RE NOT TWO METRES APART, THAT'S FOR DARNED SURE. TELL ME THIS, CAROLINE. ANY THOUGHT BEING GIVEN. LET'S SAY YOU'RE IN HIGH SCHOOL. YOU FINISH OFF GRADE 11 AND YOU DIDN'T HAVE A TYPICAL YEAR. NOW YOU'RE STARTING YOUR GRADE 12, YOUR FINAL YEAR ALLEGEDLY BEFORE POSTSECONDARY AND IT'S NOT GOING TO BE A NORMAL YEAR AGAIN. IS THERE ANY THOUGHT BRINGING BACK GRADE 13 GIVEN HOW UNUSUAL THE LAST TWO YEARS HAVE BEEN?

Caroline says I HAVEN'T HEARD ANYTHING AROUND THAT, STEVE. I KNOW THERE ARE A NUMBER OF STUDENTS IN GRADE 12 WHO DO DO... BEFORE THIS PANDEMIC EVEN... WHO DO A FIFTH YEAR IN HIGH SCHOOL. SO THAT IS NOT... THAT IS NOT UNCOMMON, A GAP YEAR OR A FIFTH YEAR. I HAVEN'T HEARD ANY THOUGHT TO BRINGING IN GRADE 13 OR THAT OAC YEAR. YOU KNOW, I THINK THEY'RE HOPING THAT SORT OF THE COHORT MODEL IN HIGH SCHOOL IN DESIGNATED BOARDS, YOU KNOW, DESIGNATED BOARDS BEING THE LARGE URBAN BOARDS, WILL SORT OF WORK OUT WHEN KIDS ARE DOING A COMBINATION OF ONLINE LEARNING AND IN-CLASS LEARNING AND IN NON-DESIGNATED BOARDS THE KIDS ARE IN SCHOOL FULL-TIME.

Steve says CAROLINE, I HAVE A MINUTE LEFT. I NORMALLY DON'T ASK PERSONAL QUESTIONS. BUT YOU DID MENTION IT A FEW MOMENTS AGO. YOU'RE NOT JUST AN EDUCATION REPORTER, YOU'RE A PARENT. YOU SENT YOUR 9-YEAR-OLD BACK TO SCHOOL TODAY. HOW DID THAT GO?

Caroline says HE WAS REALLY EXCITED ONLY BECAUSE HE KNEW HIS BEST FRIEND WAS GOING TO BE IN THE CLASS WITH HIM AND HIS LOVELY, LOVELY TEACHER CALLED OVER THE WEEKEND TO ANSWER ANY QUESTIONS AND TO TALK TO HIM AND TO MAKE SURE THAT HE KNEW THAT HIS BEST FRIEND WAS SITTING BESIDE HIM. I, ON THE OTHER HAND, ALL THE JITTERS, STEVE, AND I THINK I STILL AM UNTIL I PICK HIM UP AT THE END OF THE DAY JUST TO SEE HOW IT WENT. YOU KNOW, GOING TO THE SCHOOL AND DROPPING HIM OFF, IT WAS PRETTY SMOOTH. THE TEACHERS WERE THERE. WE DID NOT GET INTO THE SCHOOL GROUNDS, YOU KNOW, WE HAD TO GO THROUGH THAT HEALTH CHECKLIST AND DROP THEM OFF AND HE WAS PRETTY HAPPY TO BE THERE. I'M STILL UNSETTLED, BUT WE'LL SEE HOW THE DAY GOES.

Steve says YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO DO IT ALL AGAIN TOMORROW WITH YOUR YOUNGER ONE, AREN'T YOU?

Caroline says I AM. MY 5-YEAR-OLD STARTS GRADE ONE TOMORROW MORNING, AND SHE IS OVER THE MOON EXCITED THAT SHE IS GOING TO HAVE HER OWN DESK.

Steve says MOM DOES NOT LOOK AS OVER THE MOON EXCITED AT ALL OF THIS, BUT HANG IN THERE. SHALL WE SAY THAT?

Caroline says THANK YOU, STEVE. I APPRECIATE THAT.

The caption changes to "Producer: Meredith Martin, @MeredithMartin."

Steve says NOT AT ALL. THAT'S CAROLINE ALPHONSO WHOSE VISITS TO THIS PROGRAM WE ALWAYS ENJOY. SHE IS THE EDUCATION REPORTER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL AND A BIT OF NERVOUS PARENT I GUESS WE CAN SAY AS WELL. THANKS A LOT, CAROLINE.

The caption changes to "Subscribe to The Agenda Podcast: tvo.org/theagenda."

Caroline says THANKS, STEVE.

Watch: Understanding the Return to School