Too early to open schools, Peel union exec says; province facing Labour Board challenge over potentially unsafe conditions
Peel’s top doctor called the region’s recent COVID-19 case numbers “disappointing and concerning” last week. With thousands of children getting ready to head back to the classroom, concern among teachers is starting to peak.
Gail Bannister-Clarke, president of Peel’s local chapter of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) says with Peel’s case numbers, there is not enough time to prepare adequately for the return to the classroom and the start of the school year should be pushed back to later in September. Her wish comes as Ontario’s four largest teachers' unions, including the ETFO, are appealing to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, claiming that the provincial government’s school reopening plan creates an unsafe work environment.
The move was strongly condemned by Premier Doug Ford during Monday’s press conference.
“We have done absolutely everything, everything that they’ve wanted, (followed) the advice from the health table, everything from the Ministry of Health, everything from the Ministry of Education, we’re sparing nothing,” he said. “We create the safest environment we possibly can for everyone, and the teachers union just want to fight, they want to fight with everyone.”
Premier Doug Ford was highly critical of Ontario's large teachers' unions on Monday, criticizing them for what he sees as a failure to work with the province on a safe reopening of schools.
The four unions, which represent more than 190,000 teachers and education workers, claim Ontario’s reopening framework “does not take every reasonable precaution to protect workers” as required by the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
“I understand kids need to get back to school, I read those reports as well about how this is effecting their mental health, but I also think it’s important for us to recognize that students, they’re with their families, they’re knowing that they’ve been told that they have to wear a mask, they have to not play with friends right now and only a certain number of people can be in your bubble, only 10 people, and then we expect them to feel safe in school when they’re sitting right next to classmates? It doesn’t make any sense at all,” Bannister-Clarke told The Pointer.
According to a press release from the unions, representatives met with the province last week, requesting enhanced standards for things like physical distancing, cohorting, ventilation and transportation. However, the province has not taken any further action, according to the unions.
Gail Bannister-Clarke, president of Peel’s local chapter of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO)
The need to reduce class sizes from current levels is crucial, the unions say, but this can’t be done without further financial resources.
The federal and provincial governments have provided aid to provinces to fund school reopenings, with Ontario set to receive a total of about $1.07 billion and Queen’s Park has also allowed local school boards to dip into reserve funds — money earmarked for other projects — in order to hire even more teachers and cover unexpected costs as a result of COVID-19. However, some say it is not enough.
“In many of our classrooms we don’t have actual desks even for younger students, we have tables,” Bannister-Clarke says. “So you have students all sitting around a table, they can not even be one metre apart, much less two.”
Recent studies have shown that the larger the class size, the higher the risk of transmission and the chance of a serious outbreak. A recent study from researchers at the University of Waterloo and the University of Guelph found that in both childcare and primary school settings, each doubling of a class size, from 8 students to 15 and then to 30, more than doubled the potential outbreak size.
This is particularly worrisome in Peel where a large proportion of Ontario’s COVID-19 cases continue to be observed in Brampton.
Over a recent seven-day period, from August 23 to 29, Brampton reported 151 new cases of COVID-19, while there were 796 cases across all of Ontario over the same period.
In a city that only has 4.5 percent of the province’s population, 19 percent of all new Ontario COVID-19 cases over the seven days were reported in its fourth largest municipality.
During the same seven-day period, from August 23 to 29, Mississauga reported 49 new cases of COVID-19.
This means that as students return to close quarters with their classmates and teachers, the risk of them carrying the novel coronavirus with them into the classroom is greater in Peel than many other areas of the province.
“We need to pay attention to this across the province, but in the conversations that I’m having with the boards, I’m advocating for more teachers, more workers, as well as more time to put things in place,” Bannister-Clarke said. “I’m definitely looking to the numbers that we have here in Peel; it’s a unique situation. When we see cases still rising we don’t want to be the cause of the second wave.”
Many elementary school classrooms do not have separate desks for students, but have them seated at tables in close quarters.
Bannister-Clarke says that the Peel District School Board (PDSB) has confirmed it will be hiring more teachers using its reserve funds, but the number of additional staff has yet to be shared. However, even with the provincial financial assistance, it will not be enough to ensure adequate physical distancing in all of Peel’s schools.
“(The PDSB) have been working very hard and want to give us the safety that we absolutely need for September,” she says. “It’s about having enough money to do it… We need more funding in order to really put in effective measures.”
Last week, the federal government announced $763 million will be coming to Ontario in two instalments to help schools with reopening. It remains unclear how much could be going to Peel’s local boards. Through the province’s reserve funding framework, PDSB is able to access approximately $36.6 million in funding to assist with reopening. The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board has access to approximately $18.4 million from its reserves.
When asked Monday about the appeal to the Labour Board, Ford’s frustration was clear.
“I’m begging now, for the teachers unions to work with us,” he said, noting that he fully supports Ontario’s frontline teachers. “I just can’t understand, we have worked with every organization, every labour organization, every single group in the entire country, at all different political stripes, and every single one, 99.9 percent of everyone is getting along, except there’s one group, it’s the teachers’ unions. Why?”
“Everything that you wanted, we’ve given you,” he added.
In the unions’ press release, Remi Sabourin, the president of the L’association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) says the provincial government has been deflecting blame for “their inadequate reopening plan by creating division among Ontarians.”
“The accusation that teachers and education workers are not willing to step up and get back to school is preposterous and insulting,” stated OSSTF/FEESO president Harvey Bischof in the same release. “No worker in the province of Ontario should be expected to sacrifice their health and safety, especially when there are such obvious measures the government could be taking to reduce the risk and prevent potential tragedies.”
One thing that remains unclear is the position of families on behalf of students. About 70 to 80 percent of them have indicated in board surveys across Ontario that they intend to send their children back into the classroom. While the teachers’ unions maintain it won’t be safe for their members, most families apparently don’t feel the same way about the potential risk to students.
Meanwhile, with the challenge before the Labour Board, the start of school is now up in the air.
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