Ontario’s teacher unions have told Premier Doug Ford that deciding whether schools can safely reopen in June is not a question they should have to answer — and that a consensus on whether to do so cannot be formed in just over one day.
On Friday afternoon, the four teacher unions issued a joint statement in response to the premier’s letter of one day earlier that asked for experts’ input on schools reopening for the final month of the academic year. Ford had asked over 50 hospitals, public health agencies and teacher unions about the safety of in-person learning, the risk posed by virus variants and whether an anticipated bump in COVID-19 cases is acceptable.
“Meaningful dialogue requires more than 32 hours’ notice to respond to questions better suited to those in the medical and public health communities,” the statement read in part.
“Teachers and education workers have repeatedly called on this government to work collaboratively to implement the health and safety measures called for by public health and education experts, including smaller class sizes to allow for proper physical distancing, improved ventilation and air filtration systems in schools, and robust tracing and testing protocols to stop potential outbreaks before they begin.”
Schools have been closed in Ontario since April during a third wave of COVID-19 infections. Those have been declining in recent weeks, although Ontario reported 1,273 infections on Friday, about 18 per cent higher than at one point earlier in the week. Vaccinations have opened to children aged 12 to 17.
Many doctors and experts are calling for the reopening of schools, citing the importance to children’s mental health. The teacher unions’ statement echoed those concerns before emphasizing that health and safety questions are not in their purview.
“Educators know that in-person learning provides the individual attention and holistic, social, emotional and academic supports necessary to best realize student success and well-being.”
The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association also deferred to public health expertise in its response to Ford.
“Our steadfast position has been that decisions about whether it is safe for students and staff to be in schools should be made by public health experts,” says a statement signed by OPSBA president Cathy Abraham. “We share the perspective of the many public health experts who have stated publicly that schools should be the last to close, and the first to open.”
Ontario’s Science Advisory table expects there would be a 6 to 11 per cent increase in COVID-19 transmission if students returned to class for the final month of the academic year. It believes the province’s health-care system has the capacity to manage that level of increased transmission.
On Friday, Ford both defended his decision to ask educators for input and expressed reservation about reopening schools.
“I want the scientists to weigh in and I want to make sure that the teacher unions weigh in and the other educational workers weigh in,” the premier said at a press conference to update the province’s vaccine rollout. “I don’t want to rush this. If it takes a couple extra days, so be it. This is a massive decision.”
Ford acknowledged the reopening schools to in-person learning could be a setback.
“I want to make sure that we are able to get the kids in camps, I want to make sure we have a great September for the kids to go back to school and this (opening schools) could affect our reopening as well.”
Teachers in Ontario are represented by the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-onteriens (AEFO), Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF).
The teacher unions’ and the OPSBA’s statements can be read below:
— OPSBA (@OPSBA) May 28, 2021
Media Release – Ontario’s teacher unions respond to Premier’s request for input on school reopening@AEFO @ETFOeducators @OECTAProv @OSSTF #OnPoli #OntEd #OSSTF #FEESO #ProPublicEd #SafetyForAll pic.twitter.com/HUa60HRNqC
— OSSTF Communications (@osstf) May 28, 2021