TORONTO -- Premier Doug Ford says his “patience is running low” with Ontario’s education unions as teachers highlight health concerns over the province’s plan to re-open schools.

Speaking to reporters in the Ottawa area, Ford also called on teachers to “step up” like other front-line workers did during the height of the pandemic.

“We have the store clerks at the peak of the pandemic checking out hundreds and hundreds of people. We have the incredible front-line health-care workers, doctors, nurses through the peak of the pandemic, dealing with COVID patients,” Ford said.

“Now, its time teachers step up, everyone else has sacrificed.”

The premier quickly pointed out that he differentiates between front-line educators and their unions, but said union leaders “have to get with the program.”

The comments quickly touched off a firestorm on social media as educators and critics of the government questioned the premier’s request.

“What is Doug Ford asking them to sacrifice? Their lives?” Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca tweeted.

“PSWs [personal support workers] caught COVID and died because Ford didn’t give them PPE [personal protective equipment]. Now he won’t give students and teachers a safe reopening.”

Harvey Bischof, President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation accused the premier of “belittle[ing] educators” and said the rhetoric “does nothing to inspire confidence for a safe return.”

“Teachers and education workers are absoloutely prepared to step up, but want the same safeguards as other frontline workers, 2 metres physical distancing, for example,” Bischof said on Twitter. 

Ford has repeatedly defended his government’s back-to-school plan as “the safest and the most cautious plan in the entire country,” one that’s been approved by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams.

The Ford government allocated roughly $350 million for infection control and prevention measures in Ontario high schools, while school boards are allowed to use up to two per cent of reserve funding to reduce class sizes.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an additional $2 billion for provinces to upgrade their back-to-school plans, with $762 million destined for Ontario.

The province’s education minister said the money would be spent to hire custodians, public health nurses and teachers as well as improve physical distancing on school buses and improve ventilation in classrooms.