Principals, school boards question Ontario's plan to host outdoor graduations

WATCH ABOVE: A day after the Ford government gave school boards the green light to take part in outdoor graduation ceremonies, many trustees say it may be too late to pivot to an in-person ceremony. Kamil Karamali reports.

Ontario educators are raising questions about the feasibility of Premier Doug Ford’s plan to have schools host outdoor “graduation” ceremonies for all students in a matter of weeks.

Several school boards said they need more information from the province before they can commit to hosting such events, while a group representing principals in the province called the idea “impractical and unrealistic.”

“We are being asked to revert and pivot again, to cancel graduation plans already in place and organize outdoor events amid social distancing restrictions,” the Ontario Principals’ Council said in a statement. “…It is unrealistic and disrespectful to Ontario educators to expect such a considerable shift in planning at this point in the school year.”

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Schools have been planning virtual ceremonies for weeks or months, the council said, and there’s no time or money to pivot to an outdoor in-person gathering.

Ford encouraged schools to hold outdoor grad ceremonies for all grades — not just grades 8 and 12 — as he announced that classes would not resume in person until September due to COVID-19.

“We’ll be working with school boards and health officials to make sure we can have outdoor graduation ceremonies for all students in all grades this summer,” he said during Wednesday’s announcement.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province is not mandating such events.

“While school boards will ultimately make this decision in consultation with local public health, our government is strongly encouraging and enabling safe outdoor and in-person graduations to celebrate Ontario student achievement,” Caitlin Clark said in an email.

The province’s largest school board, for one, said it was still too soon to say whether such events would be possible.

“We have just learned this information today and are now awaiting further information from the province on parameters for outdoor gatherings, along with guidance from Toronto Public Health, prior to making any decision on these events,” the Toronto District School Board said in a memo to parents on Wednesday.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board found itself in a similar boat.

“Given the lack of details we have so far, we would need to receive more information in terms of expectations before we can determine what we would be able to do outside the planned virtual grads we have been preparing for,” spokesman Bruce Campbell said in an email.

Two weeks ago, Campbell told The Canadian Press that outdoor grad ceremonies weren’t feasible due to the size of some graduation classes — as large as 400 students in some schools — the “unpredictability of the weather” and the fact that the board is located within “one of the biggest COVID hot spots in the country.”

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The association representing Ontario’s public school boards has also come out against the plan.

“As we approach the end of the school year, school boards are concerned about the apparent contradiction between the decision to close schools and the directive from the premier to hold in-person graduations,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Board Association.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government will be in touch with boards to figure out logistics.

“It’s going to be worked out obviously with the school boards, with Minister Lecce and with the local public health officers to make sure that students will be physically distanced and have masks and so on, so that it will be done following all the necessary public health measures,” she told reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday.

But some opposition politicians said the province’s graduation idea was half-baked.

Liberal house leader John Fraser said the plan amounted to: “Hey, folks, we can all have parties.”

“It’s kind of a little embarrassing that he didn’t even actually start the plan, talk to the stakeholders about that, talk to principals,” Fraser said. “For heaven’s sakes, the principals had to come out and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right.’ You don’t usually get principals saying that.”

— With a file from Holly McKenzie-Sutter

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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