Unions that represent teachers and staff are putting pressure on the Toronto District School Board to revisit its “restart plan” for public schools this fall amid the pandemic.
In an open letter dated Wednesday to TDSB trustees and education director Carlene Jackson, five bargaining units that represent members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), Toronto Education Workers and Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT) implore the board “to take full responsibility for a safe school reopening in September.”
The board will review the plan on Thursday and will be able to ask senior staff questions and make recommendations. After that, the plan will go to senior staff for approval, which could happen as early as this week. The plan will then be submitted to the Ontario education ministry for approval.
“If ever there was a time to stand up to this government that puts its own bottom line ahead of everything else, it is now, when the very health and safety of the students and staff in your charge are at risk,” the letter reads.
Union pressure on the TDSB, Canada’s largest school board, comes as criticism grows about the Ontario government’s framework for school reopening. Premier Doug Ford has said he is following the advice of medical experts, but unions, teachers, parents and the official opposition say he is ignoring that advice and the plan will fail to keep students, staff and teachers safe.
Leslie Wolfe, president of OSSTF Toronto Teachers, the bargaining unit for 5,000 high school and adult day school teachers who work for the TDSB, said union leaders reviewed the board’s plan on Wednesday morning.
“We jointly agreed that it falls far short of what we believe is required for a fully safe September for students and for staff. We felt it was important for the trustees and the director to hear from all of us together that we are not supportive of the plan in its current form,” Wolfe said.
“We think it is incumbent on the Toronto District School Board to put a plan in place that protects students and educational workers and teachers in Toronto rather than simply doing the bidding of the minister of education based on the ministry’s edicts.”
The TDSB has not yet responded to a request for comment. All of the province’s 72 publicly funded school boards are expected to hand over to the ministry their individual plans for safely reopening in the fall.
In the letter, the bargaining units say they want the following:
- Reduced class size for all grades to cohorts of 15.
- Mandatory masks for all staff and students.
- Safe, professional working spaces for all teachers and education workers.
- Teaching and learning schedules that prioritize face-to-face learning with online learning as supplementary modes as needed.
- Proper personal protective equipment for all.
- Funding that ensures that appropriate staffing, and additional health and safety modifications that are required to keep students and staff safe at work, are available.
Wolfe added: “I am really hoping that the trustees at tomorrow’s meeting will ask senior management at the board to go back and take another look at their plan.”
According to the unions, Ford has abdicated political responsibility for the reopening of schools in a healthy and safe manner and has failed to consider recommendations made by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in its recent school reopening report.
Under the provincial reopening plan, there will be no reduction in class sizes for students in kindergarten through to Grade 8. Students will spend the day in a single cohort to limit contact with other children.
Most Ontario high schoolers will also be in class full-time, though students at two dozen boards across the province will take half their courses online in a bid to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In Toronto, under the TDSB plan, high school students will be in class for part of the school day on alternating days. For the remainder of each school day, students will be in online classes or doing work independently at home.
Masks will be mandatory for those in Grade 4 and up, while those in Grade 3 and below will be encouraged to wear them.
One parent, meanwhile, has launched a petition that has garnered more than 145,000 signatures calling for smaller class sizes at the elementary level, while SickKids issued a joint statement on Wednesday, along with six other hospitals, calling on the ministry, school boards and schools to consider its recent recommendations.
SickKids has urged the province to address “structural deficiencies, such as large class sizes, small classrooms and poor ventilation” as part of its school reopening framework.
For its part, SickKids, in the joint statement, said: “Our guidance statements stress the critical importance of an appropriate bundle of health and safety measures — with emphasis on hand hygiene, cleaning, physical distancing, cohorting, masking for older students when distancing is not possible, and improved ventilation in classrooms — to mitigate risk for students, teachers and school staff, and families.
“We also stressed the importance of controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the community, and screening everyone before they enter schools every day. Only a combined approach to all safety measures will maximize the mitigation of risk.”
On Wednesday, Ford said of schools reopening in Ontario: “Is it going to be perfect? No.”
Parents who aren’t comfortable sending their children to school have the option of keeping them at home in September, Ford said.
“I personally feel we have the best plan in the entire country,” Ford said. “We have two options here. We bring the kids to school, which I’m hearing the vast majority of parents want to get back to normal … or keep your kids at home and you do online courses.
“I wish I had the magical wand to say everyone is going to be perfectly fine. Let’s see. We’re relying on the best health minds in the country.”