'Nothing changed': Teachers and parents left frustrated by lack of promised safety measures at Toronto schools
A student arrives at a high school in Ontario, as in-person classes resume in the region for the first time since the winter holidays, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
TORONTO -- Some teachers say they are left horrified after walking into their reopened classrooms this week to find the Ontario government had not brought in any of its promised COVID-19 safety measures.
The province stopped in-person learning in December as COVID-19 case numbers soared and the threat posed by variants loomed, but all schools reopened on Tuesday with the promise that new safety measures would be in place.
“Nothing changed, absolutely nothing, nothing at all,” a Toronto teacher of 18 years told CTV News Toronto on Thursday. “This is where I thrive. I love being in the classroom, but to be back under these circumstances, it is quite terrifying.”
Last month, the province said it would improve pandemic safety measures before reopening schools. The plan promised investments in better ventilation, COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment, more custodians and other staff.
The Toronto teacher, who did not want her name published out of fear of losing her job, said her school of about 300 students has only one daytime custodian and that she’s forced to leave her windows open in the winter to increase airflow.
“That’s helpful if you even have windows in your classroom, some don’t,” she said. “I thankfully do, but it’s the middle of winter. It’s freezing. My kids can’t even write sometimes because their hands are so cold.”
She said that despite the government’s promise, her classroom has not received better quality masks for students.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce welcomed young people across Ontario back to school on social media this week, saying that students are returning to safer classrooms with “additional layers of protection and investments in place.”
His post on Twitter was met with an onslaught of fury from dozens of parents and teachers, accusing the minister of lying to families.
In a statement to CTV News Toronto, Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Lecce, said the ministry of education implemented new stricter measures before schools reopened on Tuesday.
“Including enhanced screening before students and staff enter schools, mandatory masking (indoors and outdoors), and a significant enhancement to asymptomatic testing access for school communities,” Clark said.
“We announced another infusion of funding — over $380M — to support further hiring of educators, to build upon the 3,400 temporary teachers hired and 890 additional teachers projected to be hired to reduce class sizes.
“We will never hesitate from taking further action to protect our schools.”
Toronto parent Kate Dupuis told CTV News Toronto that very little had changed on Tuesday when her five -year-old daughter returned to school.
Dupuis said she got an email about the new safety measures before in-person learning began, which highlighted the use of brightly-coloured stickers to identify cohorts during recess and an enhanced screening tool.
She added that her daughter’s classroom increased in size by two students, making social distancing between the children even harder to manage.
“The really big ticket items that all the scientists suggested that are going to protect our kids, like enhanced ventilation and smaller class sizes, obviously, are not happening,” she said.
“I’m enraged. There’s no excuse. It’s been months. Research has told the government what to do.”
She said schools, teachers and boards are doing their best with what they have, but need the government to step up and provide better support to deal with the pandemic.
Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB),said it takes its lead from the Ontario Ministry of Education and Toronto Public Health.
Bird said medical-grade masks and face shields have been provided to staff at schools, which is in line with provincial guidelines. He added that the board was able to purchase 4,000 air purifiers/HEPA filters to use in classrooms without “mechanical ventilation or with limited ability to provide fresh air.”
He said more than 235 of the board’s 600 schools have received the filters.
“In early February, the ministry of education made more federal funding available to school boards. TDSB recently submitted an application to purchase an additional 10,200 HEPA units for distribution to other schools,” he said.
“Since the beginning of the school year, the TDSB has spent millions of dollars to lower class sizes across all schools, with a particular focus on schools in neighbourhoods at higher risk for COVID-19.”
Toronto has been the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, with 376 new cases of the disease reported on Friday, while most of the other parts of the province struggles with fewer than 50 cases most days.
The province reported on Friday that eighty more cases of COVID-19 were found in Ontario schools. Sixty-four of the cases were found among students and 16 were found among staff. There are currently 255 schools with a reported case of the disease in Ontario, five of which are closed.
Another TDSB teacher, who also spoke to CTV News Toronto but wanted to stay anonymous out of fear of losing his job, said he was hoping individual desks would be provided for his students.
He said that since September, his students have sat around large shared tables.
“We can't actually practice physical distancing in this classroom because, even with the size that it is, with 23 kids and a whole bunch of tables, that just isn't enough space,” he said on Thursday.
The teacher said he wishes more asymptomatic testing was available to teachers and students to ensure that cases of the virus are not left undetected.
On Tuesday, Lecce sent a memo to the board, saying that all school boards will now be required to conduct asymptomatic testing of staff and students in at least five per cent of schools within their jurisdiction every week. That will include 27 different schools in Toronto per week.