School doors creak open this coming Monday, marking a hiatus from on-line learning as students and school staff return to the hallowed halls.
Ontario’s education minister Stephen Lecce announced the January 17 reopening during a press conference yesterday. The full speech is available to view via Lecce’s YouTube page—skip to the 15-minute mark to begin.
“I cannot imagine the difficulty families are facing as this pandemic continues,” Lecce said. “We believe so strongly that children need to be in school.”
“They are essential to the mental and physical health of a child,” he added, before outlining the government’s strategies and preparations to return kids and staff back to class safely.
Lecce’s press conference glued many to the screen, including Rob Hammond, the president of the Near North Teacher’s Local of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO).
Lecce’s live announcement was all new to Hammond, as the government neglected to inform him of the reopening plans.
“Just to be clear on that,” he explained, “the unions were never informed that the government was planning on us going back to work. We found out about it through social media.”
“That has actually been the biggest bone of contention that we have,” Hammond noted, “that none of the union affiliates were informed of this government’s decision. It was leaked on social media the night before.”
“It was a huge shock,” he admitted. “We’ve been reacting to it because we weren’t consulted.”
“I guess we’re just like everyone else, playing a wait and see game” with the government. “We’re all waiting on what the government’s decisions are going to be.”
Communicating with the government seems to be a one-way street these days, even for the unions.
Hammond explained that the ETFO has been “lobbying the government from the beginning” of the pandemic to enhance ventilation, to improve the quality and stock of personal protective equipment and “reduce class sizes” to improve safety.
From the get-go the union has been offering advice but “I don’t think they’re interested in what we have to say,” Hammond said.
However, despite learning of the reopening yesterday, Hammond looks forward to returning to in-class learning.
“We’ve always maintained that students learn best in class in front of a teacher,” he said, “and we will do whatever we can do make sure it’s done safely” to make sure “everyone is safe.”
To ensure that safety, the province is supplying N95 masks to schools, implementing more stringent cleaning protocols and improving ventilation in classrooms. The complete list of precautions is available on the Ontario government’s website.
As for the improved ventilation, Hammond welcomes the improvements, but notes such upgrades are long overdue.
“We’ve gone 20 years with them not working on schools and allowing schools to be run down and now it’s no wonder that we have a problem with ventilation.”
About 80,000 portable HEPA filters have found their way into classrooms throughout the province. A useful solution Hammond is grateful for, but has reservations about the province taking credit for funding the expenditure.
“The Ford government is claiming that they’re doing this when it’s actually been Federal funding” that paid for the units.
More masks are always welcome within the schools, especially top-of-line N95 masks. However, Hammond noted they are non-fitted masks, and his union was really pushing to have fitted masks.
“They will fit some people, and not necessarily fit others.”
The mask “has to be fitted properly to be effective, and they can only be used inside” because “once the condensation gets into the N95s they lose their effectiveness.”
As such, the use of these N95 masks is not being mandated by the union. The option is there to use them, and they are fine masks if they fit well, however, staff and students are permitted to wear other masks.
Indeed, masks remain required for both staff and students, whether it be an N95 or another medical grade mask.
The union’s request to shrink class sizes has seen no result, as there are as many students in a room as before the pandemic.
“We have classes of 29 kindergarten kids,” Hammond said, and classes “average around 24 students.”
The numbers make it difficult as most primary schools do not have cafeterias. Students have to eat lunch together in their classrooms, which means 24 kids taking off their masks to do so.
Vaccinations are another tool to ensure school safety, and all staff “have to declare whether you are vaccinated of unvaccinated,” Hammond said.
“And a majority of our members are fully vaccinated,” although “access to getting a booster” has been an issue for some in recent weeks.
“Any members who decline to declare their status or are not vaccinated have been required to test two times a week” using rapid tests.
“Most of our members want to be back in the classroom,” Hammond said. “They know that’s where they can service kids the best.”
“For the social, emotional, and academic needs of the students, they really need to be in the classroom,” he added.
Overall, Hammond looks forward to re-opening but has issues with how the re-opening has been handled.
“I think it’s very unfair to parents to students and to education staff to keep us on tenterhooks waiting for word if we are going back or are we not going back?”
“My biggest concern is the way the parents and kids have been treated,” Hammond explained. “This unknowing and uncertainty and the government’s inability to make decisions,” has had negative effects on all involved.
“My analogy is that both the school boards and the unions are sitting in the same canoe going over Niagara Falls together,” Hammond said.
“The government has never had an established policy on Covid responses, and it’s just been clear that they’ve been completely inept in everything they’ve done right from the very start.”
David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.