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'It's Groundhog Day:' Local unions express safety concerns in Ontario's back to school plan

With large class sizes, no safety protocols on managing COVID outbreaks and the Delta variant rapidly spreading, unions say safety is a concern
Empty classroom. Pexels photo

It's a year and a half into the pandemic, and local teachers’ unions feel little has changed when it comes to safety in the classroom.

The provincial plan released Tuesday states that masks are mandatory for students from Grade 1 to Grade 12, and students who feel uncomfortable returning back to school may continue their education remotely. It states that school closures are possible if the pandemic worsens and school boards need to have a plan in place if that happens. 

The new plan allows high contact indoor sports for unvaccinated students, doesn’t mandate vaccination and shares no safety protocols on managing COVID-19 outbreaks. 

“I really do feel like it's Groundhog Day that we're in a year later. A lot of the same issues are still not fully answered and we've got a few more weeks here to see if some more details leak out and exactly how the minister's plan looks at the school level,” said Paul Rawlinson, District 18 president representing the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation for the Upper Grand District School Board. 

Rawlinson said the union is glad some issues are being acknowledged after the plan was released yesterday, such as the additional funding of $25 million to improve ventilation in schools.

“I'm not sure how far $25 million goes across the province, but you have to give things a chance so hopefully that will address some ventilation issues I know. We're still concerned about class sizes,” said Rawlinson. 

He said with a plan to have roughly 30 students in classes, one can’t help but wonder if vaccination rates can keep up. 

“I don't think we've got the full plan in place that'll make everybody feel 100 per cent comfortable,” said Rawlinson. 

He said the primary concern with local teachers is class size especially when there is no telling what percentage of students will be vaccinated. 

“We're going to manage situations where there is exposure or there are positive cases. It sounds like there may not be quite as vigorous of a quarantine process. I don't know whether that's comforting to parents and to students and to staff in those buildings,” said Rawlinson. 

“It's the not knowing that can be the most stressful piece.”

Upper Grand ETFO President Gundi Barbour said with the Delta variant rapidly spreading and children under the age of 12 unable to be vaccinated, the union has many safety concerns. 

“There weren't enough measures in place here in the spring or in the winter and there is no provision in the government's plan for any further revisions to be in place,” said Barbour. 

David Del Duca, a member of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) in the Wellington region said everyone already anticipated to wear masks and practice safe hand hygiene in the future which is nothing new as listed in the plan.

“You know, listening to Lecce speak this morning. It was rather disappointing for him to describe this funding for improved ventilation as front ended funding as if he's out in front of something,” said Del Duca. 

“For them to be saying that they're finally going to spend millions of dollars on ventilation, I'm curious where that funding was last year and why it wasn't implemented,” said Del Duca, adding that there shouldn't even be conversations around ventilation at this point. 

He also added that the document suggests more information is going to be released but time is running out. 

“I feel sorry for the teachers who are going to be trying to implement and interpret these guidelines in the next few weeks not knowing what a high contact sport or activity looks like,” said Del Duca.

“We shouldn't have to be surprised in early August for what's going to happen in less than a month when we get back into school.”

Del Duca said teachers have been saying all along that hybrid learning is very difficult for both teachers and students and the plan doesn’t do much to prevent the hybrid scenario.

“This information should have been prepared, they should have been preparing and planning all along, I mean schools have been closed since April. So this should have been first and foremost, in terms of creating a plan and a phased plan and multiple possibilities if cases were up again,” said Del Duca.


Anam Khan

About the Author: Anam Khan

Anam Khan is a journalist who covers numerous beats in Guelph and Wellington County that include politics, crime, features, environment and social justice
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