ETFO warns of school shutdowns unless government improves safety

Photo courtesy of © Can Stock Photo / tomwang.

Parents and students may be celebrating the return to the classroom on Monday, but the union that represents a lot of their teachers is not.

The President of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario says she found out about the return on social media along with the rest of Ontario.

“It was quite disrespectful for our members,” said Karen Brown, especially considering the long list of concerns the union has about preventing the transmission of COVID-19 in schools.

The Ford government has announced prioritizing education workers to get their booster shots and another 3,000 HEPA filters for classrooms. Some school boards expected N95 masks for teachers before the Christmas break.

However, Brown said there has been no discussion about smaller class sizes to improve social distancing, bringing back the monitoring of outbreaks in schools, improving contact tracing, and accessibility to testing. Meanwhile, students under the age of five are still not eligible for the vaccine, and vaccination rates for those five to 11 remain low.

She fears the lack of attention to those details will ensure some schools will shut down again when school staff self-isolate because of COVID-19.

“We’re seeing that happening in Saskatchewan and other provinces,” she said. “We know in healthcare, it’s a 30 to 40 per cent absenteeism because of illness and because the staff needs to self-isolate.”

She pointed out it is unknown how Omicron will spread in schools because staff and students haven’t been in the class for more than three weeks.

“The Premier said it was a tsunami. I don’t think that tsunami has changed in a week,” added Brown. “We’re not going to stop it, but I don’t think we’ve put all the measures in place to slow it down.”

There was no official announcement about the return to school. Instead, the information was confirmed by officials in Premier Doug Ford’s office speaking to reporters on Monday night.