The Ford government has been slammed by a union representing thousands of elementary school teachers for announcing a return to in-person learning without taking the necessary precautions to ensure that classrooms are safe.
However, Health Minister Christine Elliott insists that her government is “taking every step” it “possibly can” to ensure school safety, including prioritizing vaccines for educational workers and distributing millions of N95 and three-ply masks for classroom use.
Despite a continuous increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions, Ontario officials affirmed on Monday night that schools would resume in-person learning as of January 17.
The news was welcomed by some parents who are eager to see their children return to the classroom, however in 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.”
Plan to reopen schools follows open letter from pediatric groups
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.
During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Elliott was asked what specifically changed over the last two weeks to allow for a safe return to school on Jan. 17 when COVID-19 will still be spreading widely.
“One thing that we did need was extra time in order to be able to have the teachers be able to come in for their second dose and booster doses as well, we also needed to get the rapid tests from the federal government and they are just starting to come in now,” she said. “We also received millions more in masks, the N95 that are going into the schools for teachers and the three-ply masks for students as well. So we just needed a bit more time to get all those provisions in place and measures in place so parents’ concerns can be relieved somewhat.”
Elliott said that her government is doing “everything it can” to allow for a resumption of in-person learning, including inspections at Ontario’s approximately 4,800 public schools “to make sure they have the necessary precautions in place.”
But she conceded that “Omicron is widespread in the community right now” and that it will be difficult for schools to determine “the exact number of students that have Omicron.”
Instead, students and educational workers will be asked to stay home for a period of five to 10 days should they develop symptoms, a situation which many public health experts warn could still result in infectious individuals attending schools.
“Self screening tools are far from perfect. It’s something, it’s not nothing. It’s close to nothing, but it’s not nothing,” infectious diseases 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.”