The province’s four major teacher and education worker unions say they are taking legal action against the Ontario government due to health and safety concerns associated with the reopening of schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a news release, the unions said they have been left with “no choice” but to file formal appeals with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB). The unions are calling for smaller class sizes, more space to allow for physical distancing, better ventilation and more.
The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) said they will each be filing an appeal with the OLRB arguing that the Ministry of Education’s Guide to Re-opening Ontario’s Schools does not take every reasonable precaution to protect workers.
“The accusation that teachers and education workers are not willing to step up and get back to schools is preposterous and insulting,” said OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof in a statement.
“No worker in the province of Ontario should be expected to sacrifice their health and safety, especially when there are such obvious measures the government could be taking to reduce the risk and prevent potential tragedies.”
The news release said representatives of the unions met with Ontario’s Minister of Labour and Chief Prevention Officer on Aug. 24 and raised a number of concerns about how safe they will be when they return to school.
The unions asked that the Ministry of Education be ordered to set standards around physical distancing, cohorting, ventilation, and transportation. They also asked the Ministry of Labour to review these orders monthly, adding that school boards should be given additional time if necessary to implement proper health and safety measures.
“The anxiety Ontarians are feeling around reopening schools is directly related to the government’s lack of leadership and their haphazard, incomplete planning,” said OECTA President Liz Stuart in a statement.
“The premier and the minister of education say they will do everything possible to make sure schools are safe. All we are asking is that they make an honest, exhaustive effort to follow through on this promise.”
The unions said that as of Aug. 28, the Ministry of Labour had “failed to comply with these requests.”
The unions said they’re asking for safety procedures that are in line with those implemented in other businesses jurisdictions, especially regarding physical distancing. The unions say the government’s current measures for schools do not follow standards and practices around workplace health and safety based on the “hierarchy of controls” from the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
“Schools and classrooms are unique workplaces, with upwards of 30 people sharing small spaces,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond in a statement.
“Smaller class sizes would help make schools safer. Should teachers and education workers not be able to expect at least the same standards and precautionary measures as have been put in place in stores, offices, and other spaces across the province?”