Ottawa’s largest school board will need to hire more custodians to clean schools and spend more for Chromebooks and other technology when students return to classes next fall, trustees were told Tuesday.
But as Ontario boards wrestle with how schools will operate during a pandemic, there are more questions than answers, including how much changes to schools will cost.
The uncertainty about what public health advice will be in place by next September makes it impossible for school boards to estimate, for example, what modifications might be needed for physical distancing to keep students safe.
Will classes have to be smaller? If it’s determined that desks must be two metres apart, where will the space be found at schools that are already crowded or have small classrooms? Will teachers or students have to wear masks or other personal protective equipment? Will buses run with just a handful of students seated by themselves?
“We can plan around the things we know, but there are so many things we don’t know, and we won’t know for awhile,” said Lynn Scott, chair of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, at a budget meeting Tuesday.
Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce has promised to provide a school re-opening plan by the end of June.
That’s also when school boards must have budgets approved, but that probably won’t happen this year, trustees were told.
Staff said the ministry has not told school boards what grants they will receive, information that was expected in March. And until more is known about how schools will operate it’s difficult to estimate costs.
The ministry will probably extend the budget deadline, trustees were told.
For now, staff recommended setting aside money for likely expenses, including $1 million for 14 more custodians. The ministry has said that cleaning will be stepped up in schools.
In other jurisdictions where students have returned to class, high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, sinks, desks and computers are sanitized multiple times a day.
Staff also recommended an extra $3.3 million be dedicated for technology and $2.2 million to potential COVID-19 expenses such as personal protective equipment or extra cleaning supplies.
However, the assumption is that if major expenses are required, boards would be provided more money from the province.
Students have been learning at home since schools closed in mid March. The board has distributed 11,000 Chromebooks so students without technology can study online, and purchased 1,000 hotspots for families without internet access.
Some of those Chromebooks will probably return to schools in need of repair, said Mike Carson, the board’s chief financial officer.
He said the board must be prepared with technology if a quick shift to remote learning at home is required. Individual schools, groups of schools or the whole district may have to close temporarily if there are outbreaks of COVID-19.
Trustee Christine Boothby said she was concerned that staff who travel from school to school, including social workers and some part-time custodians, may present a danger of spreading the virus. The province has implemented rules to prevent workers in long-term care homes from working at several institutions, she noted.
Carson said it would be difficult for the board to eliminate all itinerant workers.
Transportation costs could also skyrocket if social distancing is imposed on buses, as it has been in Quebec, where elementary students outside Montreal were allowed to return to schools earlier this month.
If physical distancing is required, a bus with a capacity for 72 students would only be allowed to carry 12 children, said Boothby.
Quickly adding more buses would be difficult, especially since there is already a shortage of bus drivers.
Another potential cost is child-care and extended day programs in schools, which may have to operate with lower student-staff ratios.
Also unknown are trends in enrolment, which Carson called “a wild card.”
Schools are funded by the province predominantly based on how many students are enrolled. The board can usually make fairly accurate predictions of how many students will show up in September.
But this year, the number of foreign students – who pay a fee – is expected to be down as well as the number of new immigrants arriving in town.
And some parents worried about safety could keep their children home next fall, especially for junior kindergarten, said Carson.
The board’s budget for this school year was also altered by the disruption to schools. Overall, the board projects a deficit of $9.7 million for 2019-20, up from the original forecasted deficit of $8.4 million. Operating expenses are estimated at $949.6 million.