Mississauga, Hamilton and Ontario teacher unions say they were not told of delayed school re-opening

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Published December 30, 2021 at 10:24 pm

Teacher and educational worker unions say they found out about Ontario’s slightly delayed return to school around the same time as everyone else.

On Thursday afternoon (Dec. 30), the Ontario chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, announced at a virtual press conference that schools across the province will not reopen until Jan. 5, one or two days later than planned. It was not clear what will happen during the 1-2 days. Neither Premier Doug Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce nor Health Minister Christine Elliott appeared.

With COVID-19 cases increasing due to the highly transmissing Omicron variant, several other provinces have extended the winter break by at least a week. There is a belief that reducing time in congregant settings will help buy time to wait out Omicron before it wanes later in the winter.

Hours after the Ontario government’s minister-less announcement, seven unions and professional associations said they “only learned” of the decision when it was announced. They also called for several new safety measures.

“Our collective message remains the same: schools can be made safe for students and staff, with sufficient investment in the right tools and measures,” the unions’ and associations’ joint statement said.

Public education spending has decreased under Ford and the Ontario PCs, who were elected in 2018. Ontario’s fiscal watchdog recently projected an education spending shortfall of $12.3 billion across the next nine years. Base funding for education in 2021-22, per a fall economic statement, will also be about $460 million lower than initially budgeted last spring. However, base funding does not include COVID time-limited funding, which is about $760 million this year.

The unions’ suggestions for returning to school did not include a vaccine mandate for staff workers or vaccine-eligible students. It did include:

  • Regular asymptomatic testing in schools, rather than self-screening.
  • A robust testing and tracing system
  • Prioritizing boosters for all staff in schools
  • Smaller class sizes to increase physical distancing
  • Improved ventilation
  • Masking for all staff and students
  • Adequate PPE (personal protective eqiuipment) for all staff
  • A provincial cleaning standard for schools
  • More staffing to carry out the additional work that these measures would entail.

The statement was signed by the AEFO (Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens), CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees), ETFO (Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario), OCEW (Ontario Council of Educational Workers), OECTA (Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association), OPSEU (Ontario Public Sector Employees’ Union) and OSSTF (Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation).

Following Moore’s solo media availability, both Ford and Lecce’s Twitter accounts said another 3,000 HEPA filters will be installed provincewide to improve ventilation in classrooms. However, that averages out to fewer than one for each the approximately 4,900 schools across the province. The government has said that 70,000 were installed during the fall, the start of the third school year affected by COVID-19.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca both said the slightly delayed school re-opening was not a solution.

“Why would schools be safe enough on Wednesday but not on Monday?” Horwath said in a statement. “(Ford is) leaving families scrambling to make child care plans, and with almost no new safety measures and no testing plan, he’s leaving everyone to worry that more shut downs for schools will keep coming.”

Horwath first called for minimum air ventilation standards in Ontario schools, with enforcement, on Aug. 19.

Del Duca and the Liberals’ statement offered several suggestions for schools. Those included running in-school vaccination clinics to improve vaccine equity, distributing high-quality masks to children, and creating strong vaccine mandates for education workers while prioritizing them for third doses.

“Ontario Liberals called for HEPA filters and high quality masks to be urgently deployed in classrooms nearly two months ago (on Nov. 15) but Doug Ford refused to do it when it mattered most,” Del Duca stated. “It feels like the Ford Government went on holiday while Omicron surged.”

The vaccines for COVID-19 have also not been added to Ontario’s Immunization of School Pupils Act. The act was an early-1980s piece of legislation enacted under a Conservative government led by the late premier Bill Davis.

As far as other parts of Canada are concerned, Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia all announced a delay to Jan. 10 prior to Ontario’s announcement. British Columbia is holding off on reopening schools for most students until Jan. 10. Quebec has said schools will not reopen until Jan. 17.

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