By Moira Warburton and Allison Martell
TORONTO (Reuters) - Classes in Canada's high risk schools should ideally have 20 or fewer students so children can maintain safe distance from each other, a top doctor who advised the government of Ontario on school reopening said, as sometimes crowded classes resumed in the midst of a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Dr Ronald Cohn, president of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, is one author of two reports that Canada's most populous province cited repeatedly in drafting back to school plans.
Cohn said much depends on the size of classrooms - some can accommodate only 15, while others may be large enough to teach 18 or 20 children, but likely not many more than that.
"It's critical that we create a classroom environment where we reduce class sizes so that physical distancing can be happening," Cohn told Reuters late Monday, adding that this is particularly important in areas with higher community transmission, often home to the most vulnerable children and families.
Preliminary results of a new study released by the hospital on Monday showed it was not possible to maintain two meters (6.5 ft) of social distancing in standard classrooms with more than 12 to 15 students. (https://safeschoolcovid19.ca/updates/)
The Toronto District School Board, the country's largest, capped classes in some higher risk schools at 15 or 20, but in other schools under the same board, caps are as high as 27, according to the province. Others boards could have much larger classes.
Asked how it felt to see classes above 20 students, Cohn said: "I will tell you that if this is a classroom size, particularly in areas of high community transmission, then that worries me."
Ontario reopened schools last week without any province-wide caps on class sizes in elementary schools, but limited some high school class size to 15.
The school reopenings have coincided with a surge in COVID-19 cases across Canada, with daily new cases charging past the 300 mark on Monday. There were 315 new cases reported in Ontario on Wednesday. Officials have blamed private social gatherings for the spread, though many new cases do not have a known source in public data.
The province promised funds to hire some new teachers and told boards they could use reserve funds to hire more, but not enough to push many classes below 20.
"The additional funding provided to school boards for a safe reopening could support, at a minimum, 2,600 teachers to reduce class sizes," Ontario's education ministry said in an emailed statement, adding that with the funding boards can use from their reserve funds, they could hire more than twice as many new teachers.
Roughly 5,200 new hires would equate to a little over one new teacher for each of Ontario's public schools, which totalled 4,828 in the last fiscal year and were attended by about 2 million students.
Facing low enrolment, some schools have combined what would have been two or more small classes, leaving other rooms empty, frustrating parents, teachers and public health experts who fear the virus will spread in crowded classes.
(Editing by Denny Thomas and Marguerita Choy)