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Union leader says members feel 'disrespected' as Ford government announces return to in-person learning


A union representing thousands of elementary school teachers is slamming the Doug Ford government for announcing a return to in-person learning without taking the steps to ensure that classrooms will be safe.

Ontario officials confirmed on Monday night that schools would resume in-person learning as of Jan. 17, despite a steady increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions.

The news was welcomed by some parents who are eager to see their children return to the classroom but in an interview with CP24 on Tuesday morning Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) President Karen Brown slammed the government for moving forward with a resumption of in-person learning during a time in which COVID-19 continues to spread widely and access to testing for school-aged children and educational staff is limited.

“We want as much as the parents do to return to in-person learning but we need to return to safe classrooms and that hasn’t been guaranteed,” she said. “What has the government done to ensure there is not interrupted learning? What are they doing about the staffing shortages?”

The Ford government has committed to provide all education workers with N95 masks prior to the resumption of classes and the Toronto District School Board has confirmed that 600,000 of the higher grade masks have already been distributed.

They also moved to send an additional 3,000 high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to schools, amounting to 0.62 additional filters per public school.

But at the same time access to take-home PCR testing has been significantly curtailed so that only students and educational staff who become symptomatic while at school will be eligible.

The government has also cut the isolation time in half for students and staff who are under 12 or fully vaccinated, allowing them to return to the classroom five days after developing symptoms when they could still be infectious.

“Our members are feeling absolutely disrespected by the premier,” Brown told CP24 on Tuesday. “For us as a federation to be finding out on social media about returning to in-person learning is really disrespectful to our members. They have been on the front line of this pandemic and we have had no consultation. We understand the government was going to review and have a look at what was happening and see what has changed but as far as I understand our numbers continue to increase, we are seeing a rise in young people being admitted to the hospitals and we are still waiting for HEPA filters across this province.”

The plan to resume in-person learning following two weeks of remote instruction comes on the heels of the Canadian Paediatric Society, the Pediatrics Section of the Ontario Medical Association and the Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario all writing an open letter to Ford urging him to reopen schools.

In the letter the groups said that they have seen increased instances of depression and anxiety amongst school-aged children following prolonged school closures in the past as well as learning losses and delayed development, calling the situation a “public health crisis.”

Of course, reopening schools is still likely to be fraught with challenges, especially with some jurisdictions reporting a significant increase in absentee rates.

In a news release issued earlier on Tuesday, ETFO said that there needs to be a “concrete plan to address the anticipated increase in staff absences” as well as “a robust testing program for students and school staff.”

The union said that without those pieces it has been left to wonder “what has been done to ensure in-person learning can return safely and sustainably.”

“We have to acknowledge that schools are extremely important for a multitude of reasons and that home schooling or this remote learning is not ideal for many, many people but at the same time you can't stick your head in the sand and pretend everything's OK because it isn’t. Our hospitals are full and Omicron is raging through Ontario so there really is no truly good path,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch warned during an interview with CP24 on Tuesday morning. “The plan here is obviously to take what's hopefully the least bad path and really get the most bang for our buck.”

In a statement provided to CP24 on Tuesday, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said that his government has been planning for the return to school next week by “doing as much as we can to improve ventilation, provide high quality PPE and expand access to vaccinations.”

Lecce said that the government has already shipped 9.1 million N95 masks to school boards as well as 4 million three-ply masks that will be distributed to students.

He said that Ontario is also “working to make more rapid antigen tests available to schools and child care centres.”

“Recognizing the challenges posed by the Omicron, these measures will help stabilize the school workforce as we continue to do everything we can to keep kids learning,” he said. Top Stories

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