Stakeholders in the education system say January’s protocols, availability of testing, and access to PPE and other equipment should be considerably better than what was observed in the first term, thanks to the province’s two-day delay.
Education activists, a key labor leader, and opposition parties say they will not accept Omicron’s return to in-person learning unless all staff members have free access to respirator masks, fast tests are provided in every school, and even more HEPA filters are sent to schools.
According to the Canadian Press, school will begin on Jan. 5, with school boards receiving extra HEPA units and all employees receiving respirator masks.
Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) President Karen Brown said if bringing in rapid testing to all schools and respirator masks means the year has to start later, she and her members are okay with that.
“If we need a few more days to do that, let’s work together,” she told CP24 on Thursday. “This is important.”
The Ford government has said little so far about what January will look like for the roughly 2.2 million elementary and secondary students in Ontario.
Sources told CTV News Toronto cabinet will meet today about what do in January, and People for Education’s Annie Kidder said they face a very difficult choice.
“It’s a very difficult decision at this point, because we know schools are a place where COVID is spreading, we know the COVID numbers are incredibly high but at the same time we know that closing schools has a really problematic impact on kids,” she said.
Even prior to Omicron becoming the dominant strain of coronavirus in Ontario, schools and public health units struggled to keep up with contact tracing, dismissing classes and whole schools and finding and deploying staff to keep schools open when large numbers were dismissed either by exposure or lack of vaccination.
The province’s schools reported 12,000 infections in staff and students between Sept. 1 and Dec. 18, with dozens of schools closed by the start of winter break.
Kidder citied evidence from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and other children’s hospitals about the increased rates of diagnosed anxiety and eating disorders among kids, believed to be caused by prolonged school closures.
“For little kids it’s been nearly two years – that’s a big percentage of their lives,” she said.
Brown, who leads the largest public teacher’s union in Ontario, said there is no way schools can resume next week without at least better masks (teachers have been provided with medical/surgical masks so far) and HEPA filtration in all learning and common areas of all schools.
So far, HEPA filters are in all kindergarten classrooms and all instructional rooms without proper mechanical ventilation. In the Toronto District School Board, they are present in all classrooms.
She said there should have been priority access to third COVID-19 vaccine doses for teachers, but no such distinction was made when availability was widened to all adults this month.
On masks, she confirmed previous CP24 reporting that individual teachers were reprimanded and threatened with discipline if they brought respirator masks to school on their own.
“Our members were being threatened with discipline earlier in the year, because they were going to add N95 masks,” she told CP24.
She said there have been “rumours” that education workers will get free respirator masks in January, but could not confirm this with the government.
CP24 reached out to the Ministry of Education on Thursday about respirator masks and when it will release a decision about operations in January, but has not received a reply.
For their part, the Liberals, NDP and Green Party of Ontario have all demanded the government increase safety protocols as part of any in-person learning plan in January.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath slammed the Ford government for waiting so long to provide parents, teachers and kids with any direction.
“Yet again, big box stores and stadiums and malls are able to go about their business while parents are on tender hooks, waiting to learn what is going to happen,” she said Thursday.
“Parents don’t even know if their kids’ schools will be open on Monday,” NDP education critic Marit Stiles said.
“Families need to make decisions around childcare for next week, employers need to know.”
Horwath said her party is also asking the government to extend paid sick leave from three to 14 days, deploy vaccine clinics in schools with parental consent, lower class sizes and continue improving air filtration and ventilation in classrooms.
Several other provinces including B.C. and Manitoba are delaying the start of in-person learning by one week.
Cathy Abraham of the Ontario Public School Boards Association told CP24 parents are running out of time to make arrangements for next week.
“It’s getting late in the time of the holiday for parents to be able to make changes or decisions about Monday,” she said.
She urged the Ford government to fund any measure recommended by public health to mitigate transmission in schools and said her organization continues to ask for COVID-19 vaccination to be added to the Immunization of School Pupils Act.
Other places, such as bars and restaurants, could face greater limitations as a type of trade-off to allow schools to reopen, according to Peter Jüni, director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
“Right now, what we’re seeing is that the 50% capacity restrictions are simply insufficient,” he said. “So we’d have to impose greater capacity limitations and have a clear message that people follow to work from home if they can work from home so that life may continue at a slower pace and with fewer connections,” says the author.
Source_ The Canadian Press