Teachers unions call for additional safety measures before students return

Children wearing face masks in school. (File photo courtesy of © Can Stock Photo / halfpoint)

With students set to learn virtually for at least the next two weeks, two Ontario teachers unions are calling on the Ford government to use that time to make schools safer for in-person learning.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) each issued statements following Monday’s provincial announcement.

“As the pandemic surges, the Ford government must invest in infection prevention and control measures that ensure in-person learning can continue safely and sustainably,” said ETFO President Karen Brown. “Last week’s decision came dangerously close to risking the safety of students and ETFO members. We share the belief that in-person learning is the best and most equitable way for students to learn, but it must be safe.”

Premier Doug Ford announced on Monday that students wouldn’t be heading back to the classroom as planned on Wednesday. Instead they will be learning online until January 17. It is one of many new public safety measures being put in place with the hope of slowing the rapid spread of COVID-19. However, the sudden shift to virtual learning came just days after the government announced it would only delay the return to school by two days.

“This shift to remote learning is frustrating because we know it could have been avoided had the province funded and implemented safety measures at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and not half-measures,” said Brown. “We recognize the hardships that come with another round of remote learning. To ensure this is the last time we need this emergency measure, we will continue to call on the Ford government to invest in adequate infection prevention measures.”

In order to make in-person learning safer going forward, the union said N95 face masks must be available to all education workers, booster shots should be prioritized for education workers, and a vaccination mandate enacted for students and staff. The union is also calling for HEPA filters to be installed in all classrooms and shared spaces, the continued monitoring and reporting of school related COVID-19 cases and outbreaks, a plan to address absenteeism, and an expanded paid sick leave program.

“We want to welcome students back to school as quickly as possible, but schools must be safe, and we need to see more than a press conference or two to be assured that they are,” said Brown.

The Secondary School Teachers’ Federation echoed the calls to action issued by ETFO.

“Without increasing access to COVID-19 testing, providing full access to enhanced PPE, guaranteeing priority access to booster vaccines for educators, ensuring HEPA filters are in place in schools, and reducing class sizes to allow for physical distancing, the premier cannot say he is doing everything he can to protect students, staff, and communities,” OSSTF said in a statement.

It went on to stress that had these measures been put in place months ago students would not have been forced to return to online learning.

“Our hope is that this government will provide more information and details to the public in the coming days,” said OSSTF officials. “[Monday’s] announcement, while necessary, insufficiently addresses what is required to make schools safe.”

The Ontario government made the decision at the end of December to no longer collect COVID-19 numbers from school boards and as of this week will not be including student and staff cases in its daily dataset.