Hamilton's public board asks education minister to reopen elementary schools for final week

Hamilton’s public school board is asking the Minister of Education to allow elementary students to return to in-person learning for the last week of the school year.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) sent a letter to Stephen Lecce, saying it was disappointed in the province’s decisions not to reopen schools before summer.

“With the support of our local public health and following all of our established health and safety COVID‐19 protocols that have successfully minimized the risk of spread this year, we respectfully request your permission to allow our elementary students and staff complete the last week of the school year (5‐7 days, June 21 to 29) in person,” wrote board chair Dawn Danko in the letter.

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During this week’s board meeting, trustees heard that staff were preparing for students to return to in-person learning until the province’s announcement on June 2 that schools would remain closed until September.

Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the board, said Hamilton’s chief medical officer of health shared an excerpt of the letter that she and the other regional officers of health sent to the premier in response to his request for consensus on reopening schools.

“In terms of the short-term impact, the chief medical officers had indicated … that the total increase in cases that would result from reopening schools is small,” said Figueiredo.

Danko’s motion to send a letter requesting the brief return to classes for elementary students was approved at Monday’s meeting and sent to the education minister the following day.

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During a press conference on Wednesday, Lecce was asked by two reporters whether he would give HWDSB approval to let elementary students attend school in person for the last week of the academic year — but he didn’t provide a clear response.

“This particular initiative obviously will require the consent of the local medical officer of health because it is different than what was asked, to be fair,” said Lecce the third time he was asked the question.

“But obviously we’ll continue the discussions with Hamilton and with the local medical officer of health because, at the end of the day, we just want to make sure kids can be celebrated in some way.”

Danko said public health has indicated it would be supportive of a brief return to the classroom for elementary school kids.

“Based on the information we’ve received from public health, they certainly do feel that, at this time, it is safe for students to go back to school,” said Danko during Monday’s meeting.

“And I don’t minimize the seriousness of COVID or the impacts of COVID. But I think, as was highlighted, our mental health experts are saying that there are other significant consequences of staying in remote and this could help mitigate those.”

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Figueiredo said the last week of school is typically light on academic activity, with more of a focus on “operational matters” like collecting resources and taking part in celebrations.

In light of the toll the pandemic has taken on students’ mental health, he said letting elementary students spend the last week of the academic year in the classroom with their teachers and peers would help to combat those feelings of isolation.

“This would provide an opportunity — not for academic rigor, but for a real focus on relationships and the social and emotional well-being of students,” said Figueiredo, adding that it would also allow students to take part in year-end celebrations safely and help with operational aspects like letting students retrieve personal belongings and return school learning resources.

While there will be graduation celebrations for Grade 8 and Grade 12 students, Figueiredo said it’s not feasible to hold ceremonies for other grades due to a lack of necessary staffing and resources.

He added that staff could be prepared to make the return to in-person learning for that final week of school, as long as they receive about five days’ notice.

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