Place strategy

Teachers union representative says province has ‘weak reopening strategy’ in place for Monday

“Time and time again, this government has shown that it has no idea how schools work,” says president of Catholic secondary schools union

Ontario staff and students will officially return to school on Monday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said at a press conference today, but some teachers are still concerned about the return to school. in-person learning in just five days.

In addition to confirming the return to in-person learning on January 17, Lecce, along with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore, revealed changes for the return to in-person learning, including the distribution of tests rapid antigens, a change in the reporting procedures, staffing levels and immunization.

Officials from the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) and Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB) said they were still learning all the details surrounding Wednesday afternoon’s announcement.

“Today, the Department of Education announced that schools will reopen to all students participating in in-person learning on January 17. The SCDSB is preparing for the return to in-person learning and will provide more information to families tomorrow, after receiving the official note and advice from the Ministry of Education, ”the public council spokesperson said, Sarah Kekewich.

Frances Bagley, director of education at SMCDSB, said the Catholic board has always supported face-to-face classrooms as “the best mode of learning for the majority of our students, while recognizing the impact that prolonged school closures can have on mental, social and physical well-being. “

However, Bagley acknowledged that a return to in-person learning next week also raises many understandable concerns about the safety of schools and classrooms.

“We are fully committed to continuing to work closely with our public health partners to ensure that the health and safety of all students and staff remains our top priority,” she said.

“In recent weeks, some additional measures have been put in place, including: N95 masks for all school staff; priority vaccinations and booster access for the education sector; we anticipate additional rapid antigen testing for students and staff; three-layer masks. for students ; screening updates in schools and daycares; and 35 new HEPA filters which we expect to be delivered shortly. “

Bagley added that the board was still reviewing details provided to it in a note from the Education Department on Wednesday and that it planned to update its plan to open schools with new guidance to further improve the safety of students and staff in the coming days.

“We will share details with staff and families before the schools open on January 17,” she said.

Jen Hare, Simcoe District President for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSEF), said what was announced yesterday is “not new information.”

“Everything he described (Wednesday) that appears to be an extra step of protection in our schools is not new information. The boards were already planning to hand out as many rapid tests as they received, which is still absolutely the plan, ”she said.

And while the minister also said tests will be in place by Monday, Hare says it’s a promise she doesn’t see coming to fruition.

“I really don’t see how that could happen with two working days left, because they have to get to the board and be distributed from there,” she said.

Not all public council schools see additional HEPA filters, Hare said, and she remains concerned about the lack of tracing and notification to families if there is a positive COVID-19 case at the school.

“The idea of ​​being notified when your child’s school has a 30% truancy rate… is simply alarming. You think 30 per cent. That’s reasonable until you consider that quite a few high schools in Barrie have 2,000 students. If you add staff on top of that… you envision about 600-700 people missing from the school before you’re told there’s a potential COVID issue in the building, ”Hare said.

“I would like to think that we don’t need to wait until 600 (people) are exposed or sick with the virus before we receive a notification,” she added.

What the public hears and what actually happens in schools can often be two different things, Hare said.

“I have the impression that the Minister of Education is very good at saying things that seem heartwarming, but the reality of how these things play out inside the walls of our building is very different,” she declared. “He’s very fluid, but he’s not very realistic.

Allyn Janicki, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (secondary), said the decision to close schools in the face of increasing cases, then reopen them when hospitals and paramedics across the province have to limit access and service, “defies logical explanation.”

“Time and time again, this government has shown that it has no idea how schools work, and worse still. (don’t) really care. The Department of Education has abdicated its responsibilities by transferring responsibilities beyond their reach to school boards for ensuring safety in the event of a pandemic, ”she said.

Most school boards had to choose where to allocate the limited number of HEPA filters they received, Janicki added.

The idea that retired teachers can step in to “save the day” will not solve the problem, she said, stressing that this was in place last year and the impact was negligible.

“Retired educators do not choose to put themselves at risk as substitute teachers. Additionally, this deal was struck and announced on January 4. The government that is now parading it a week later is nothing more than an attempt to bolster its weak reopening strategy, ”Janicki said.

The distribution of N95 masks, Janicki continued, should have taken place in September.

“Students always wear fabric masks or surgical masks or in some cases no masks at all, ”she said.

Janicki says the reality is that there is still a lot of work to be done to make schools safe for students and staff, including prioritizing five-year-olds for the first, second and third immunizations, if needed, by establishing a policy requiring masking of all students in schools with improved guidelines to ensure masking compliance; make additional rapid antigen testing available to all school staff and students and implement a comprehensive testing and follow-up program including proof of negative testing after isolation and before returning to school in person.

Continue to publicly report on reported cases within the board, installation of HEPA filter units in all classrooms, in-person learning spaces and offices / administrative spaces in all schools, development stringent cohort requirements for all years, as well as reviewing lunch practices to mitigate risk should also be considered, she added.

Schools won’t be safer if they reopen, so they would have been on January 3, Janicki said, which would be a “colossal failure”.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is cautious about the province’s new security measures, spokeswoman Carla Pereira said in a statement.

To safely return to in-person learning and to provide the highest level of protection for Ontario students, teachers, other education workers and communities, ETFO continues to call on the Ford government to address a number of his concerns, Pereira said.

She said this involved ensuring that all people working or attending school who can be safely vaccinated are vaccinated and those who are not vaccinated are tested according to ministry guidelines; improve ventilation and install HEPA filters in all classrooms and public / shared spaces of schools; reduce class sizes to promote physical distancing; implement strong testing and contact tracing programs; and return to monitoring and reporting COVID-19 cases / outbreaks in schools.

ETFO also calls for the implementation of a sustainable plan to deal with an anticipated increase in staff absences due to illness and / or isolation related to COVID; and immediately expand the paid sick leave program.

Hare said she knows parents will make the best decision for their family and hopes they understand teachers will do whatever they can to make sure students get what they need. That being said, she expects there will be a lot of chaos, uncertainty and nervousness as staff and students return to class.

“As long as we remember that we are in the same boat to help our children, we will get there, but it will be very unpleasant for the next moment,” she said.