With school starting up again, parents and teachers are complaining about classrooms that are "bursting at the seams."

COVID-19 has exacerbated complaints about overcrowding in classrooms.

In late August, a Montreal instructor sets up desks. With the start of the new school year, the argument regarding the safety of large class sizes has resurfaced, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

With the start of the new school year, the argument about the safety of large class sizes has resurfaced, with some parents and teachers throughout Canada criticising 30 to 40-student classrooms in the midst of the current COVID-19 outbreak.

Melanie Agar admitted that she was nervous about enrolling her two sons — one in junior kindergarten and the other in Grade 3 — for in-person learning in Ottawa this fall.

"Then to find out that the ecosystem is really bursting at the seams... it's not acceptable," Agar remarked. "It scares me a lot.... As parents, all we want to do is safeguard our children."

Since pupils under the age of 12 aren't currently approved to receive COVID-19 immunizations, "everyone is watching back to school intently to see what happens with epidemiology," said Paul Mitchell, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

As the school reaches 150 percent full, parents are concerned about alienation.

Even before the pandemic, he said, the province was grappling with large class sizes; it wasn't uncommon to see around 40 students in certain compulsory high school courses, for example, or elementary schools in high-growth neighbourhoods with classrooms with six to seven students above established guidelines.

According to Mitchell, bringing large courses into conformity normally takes a month or more before "formal procedures are taken."

This month, students from Ottawa's Franco-Cité Catholic High School are on display. (CBC)

Large classes, on the other hand, are a "double-whammy issue" at COVID-19, according to Mitchell, layered on top of concerns about teachers' one-on-one attentiveness.

"The larger the class size, the greater the risk of students and staff in those congested classrooms contracting COVID-19 at a time when many students are unable to get vaccinated," he explained.

The problem is exacerbated by ongoing ventilation issues in many Nova Scotia schools, as well as the province's plan to eliminate indoor mask regulations early next month as it nears completion of its re-opening.

"Because of how many students we have in each classroom and how inadequately ventilated those rooms are," he added, "class size becomes a pandemic concern."

Masks should be worn in all N.S. schools, according to doctors and the teachers' union.


Annie Rosie, a high school teacher in British Columbia, has heard from parents and colleagues about overcrowded classrooms and has seen them firsthand.

"I don't have the tiniest classroom in the school," said the Surrey, B.C., teacher, "but [with] Grade 11 and 12s in there, it's fairly congested — and they're sitting rather close together, because there's just no other way to fit that many kids."

"You might have 31 kids, or whatever the number is, and all the administration can do is attempt to find spaces for everyone.... That isn't good enough when you consider that we are in the midst of a pandemic and that the delta version is attacking those of younger ages."

Parents are concerned that courses with children who are "right on top of each other" increase the danger of COVID-19.

Both Mitchell and Rosie want their respective provincial education ministries to take a more proactive approach to identifying ways to reduce class numbers.

For example, Mitchell would like to see more physical space acquired so that new, smaller classrooms may be developed and students can spread out.

Parents and educators demanded remote learning choices, vaccine mandates, and other school-related safety measures during a protest in Surrey, B.C., in late August. (CBC/Janella Hamilton)

"Rather than waiting for things to go extremely awful before we hurry to put things in place, we'd prefer to have the government do it proactively," he said.

Meanwhile, Rosie believes that expanding virtual learning options and hiring more instructors, as districts did last year, would be beneficial.

"There's never a drawback to having 22 or 24 [students] instead of 30 or 31 [students] pedagogically, for curriculum, for COVID."

Read more about students returning to school across Canada.

'It all boils down to money.'

According to Ryan Bird, a representative for the Toronto District School Board, larger class numbers at the start of the school year aren't specific to the epidemic (TDSB). It serves over 240,000 pupils as Canada's largest school district.

After the first couple of weeks, when enrolment fluctuations have often stabilised, classes are usually adjusted to meet Ministry of Education regulations, Bird said, but he noted that "class numbers are significantly more of an issue during a pandemic."

CURRENT STATE OF OUR SCHOOL Experts claim that even with renovations and extra filters, classroom air quality isn't equal.


The TDSB reduced class sizes during the 2020-21 school year, with a special focus on COVID-19 hotspot neighbourhoods identified by Toronto Public Health. However, that plan will not take place this year, according to Bird, who added that the board is still working to reduce class numbers as much as feasible.

"It all boils down to money and how much we have to work with.... Given the funding envelope we've been given, we're trying our best "Bird remarked.

"As always, we're working to ensure that the staffing is where the students are."

On the first day of school last week, students filed into Spring Valley Elementary School in Ancaster, Ont. Classrooms are routinely restructured to be in compliance with Ministry of Education rules when enrolment fluctuations settle during the first several weeks of school, according to TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird. (CBC/Evan Mitsui)

Though reduced class sizes are ideal, epidemiologist Pugpreet Kaur argues that other essential mitigating measures in school settings should be prioritised.

"Vaccination is the most effective tool we have," said Kaur, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa's faculty of health sciences. "It's not just for school staff, but for everyone in the community."

"If the entire neighborhood is vaccinated and all adults are eligible, the chances of something awful happening in a school are drastically reduced."

In June, a teen at Montreal's École Secondaire Saint-Henri receives his immunisation. Although clinical trials are underway, children under the age of 12 are not currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. (Radio-Canada/Ivanoh Demers)

He recommends N95 masks or an equivalent as "a better containment mechanism for aerosolized particles" and recommends mandatory masking to assist reduce transmission.

A third key technique, according to Kaur, is improved ventilation — ideally, HEPA air filters, but alternatively, air purifiers or opening windows to help dilute virus particles in the air.

Kaur also wants to see fast tests combined with symptom-screening checks to provide schools "a fairly excellent possibility of removing contagious persons."

In a Toronto District School Board classroom, a new HEPA air filtering system can be observed. (CBC/Evan Mitsui)

"I'm not terribly concerned about... the lack of small class sizes, even though it would be ideal," he said, if all of those things are in place and used effectively.

"We have a range of tools in place, and as long as the majority of those tools are working well, it shouldn't matter too much if one or two of those other tools aren't."

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