Horwath calls on province to make schools safer

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. (File photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

If schools in the London area are going to stay open, then they’ll need to be made much safer to protect students and staff from COVID-19 variants.

That was the message delivered Wednesday by Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath and London’s three New Democrat MPPs. London West’s Peggy Sattler, London Fanshawe’s Teresa Armstrong, and Terence Kernaghan of London North Centre were also joined by NDP education critic Marit Styles, parent Ryan Taylor, and Scott Hardie, vice president of the Thames Valley local of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

During a media conference held on Zoom, Horwath told reporters that the Ford government has failed to deliver on its promises to implement more stringent protections in schools.

“The problem that we see here is, that from the get-go, this Premier has not wanted to spend the money to put in place the necessary measures to keep our schools safe,” Horwath said. “We made a lot of recommendations. Everything from capping class sizes right up to making sure buses were only 50 per cent (capacity), that the government invest in ventilation, touchless faucets, widespread testing. I have to say, if I was Premier of Ontario today, I would use this Spring Break to make those improvements.”

Horwath said that, as COVID-19 variants continue to spread at a concerning pace, it’s crucial that students return to classes that provide them with better protection. She added the government needs to make sure teachers and other school staff get vaccinated over the break.

The 2020-2021 school year has been a very difficult one for teachers and other education workers, according to Thames Valley ETFO Vice-President Scott Hardie. During the news conference, he spoke about his family’s decision to opt for full remote learning. It was a decision, he says, made out of concern for the level of safety in classrooms.

“I contacted my daughter’s school, which is wonderful, and just asked what was her Grade 8 class number like. And at the time, it was at 31, and I know that her school has smaller classrooms,” he said. “When I asked how much they had between desks, the principal laughed and said ‘that’s better than crying.’ It was about 20 centimetres.”

On Wednesday, Horwath reiterated her call for all classes in Ontario to be capped at 15 students during the pandemic and for the province to install touch-free faucets and better ventilation in schools. Otherwise, students and staff won’t be safe, she said.

“No one wants to see schools shut down again,” Horwath said. “But I’m worried Doug Ford could be marching schools all over the province towards another shutdown if he doesn’t take strong actions to make them safer. Mr. Ford has chosen not to invest in our schools and children — and that’s got to change.”

A statement from a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce issued the following statement in response to Horwath’s allegations, citing Middlesex London Medical Officer of Health Dr. Chris Mackie who claimed on Tuesday that transmission of COVID-19 in London-area schools is “exceedingly rare.” 

“Today, our government announced that we are prioritizing all education staff across the province who work with special education students for vaccinations next week over the April Break,” the statement said. “It is our firm belief that schools should be open for in-class learning, as they are critical to student mental health. Due to our strong infection prevention measures, 99% of students and staff have no reported active cases of COVID-19, however we must remain vigilant and keep our guard up in order to keep schools safe and open.”