Ontario's chief medical officer of health says he's satisfied with the government's plans, despite the risk of "imminent danger" feared by teachers unions
The government of Ontario released more details of its back-to-school plan at Queen’s Park on Thursday afternoon. And it wasn’t what teachers unions were expecting.
Premier Doug Ford was promising big news during a press conference in Windsor.
“It’s all about being flexible and adaptable. We’re listening. I don’t want to steal the minister’s thunder. But it’s a real positive announcement. Collaboration is the only way we’re going to move forward,” the premier said.
The big news was a little less than that when Education Minister Stephen Lecce took the podium at Queen’s Park later in the afternoon.
He announced plans to allow school boards to access reserve funds. Lecce says the money will allow boards to make room in schools or lease space to allow for more physical distancing to respond to COVID-19.
He also announced $50 million for schools to repair and maintain ventilation systems.
The most contentious part: the minister has mandated that teachers provide more hours of e-learning in response to parents’ concerns that the modified class sizes to accommodate physical distancing does not allow for enough teacher instruction.
The minister said the moves amount to $500 million in “targeted one-time funding.” But most school boards, about half, do not have access to reserve funds. One questioner pointed that out to the minister during the press conference.
Lecce described the government’s back-to-school spending as “a benchmark” compared to other provinces in the country. It’s a theme that has marked the government’s back-to-school announcements, despite concerns over class sizes.
But the government is not prepared to delay school re-opening, as some parents groups have been calling for. Lecce did say, however, that he is willing to consider phasing-in re-opening in some cases.
The Ford government has announced a full return to school for elementary students with a shortened school day. And in-class instruction every other day for secondary school students. Online learning will take up the rest of the class time for secondary students and for those parents who do not want to send their children back to school. Nurses to screen students and more custodians to clean schools have also been announced by the government.
But the plan has come under criticism from Toronto Public Health and teachers unions concerned about class sizes and ventilation in classrooms. Experts at SickKids have also raised issues on class size, which have been capped for secondary students at 15. Elementary grades are allowed a maximum of 24 students.
And while the government has promised to remain flexible as it rolls out its plan, antagonisms between the government and teachers unions dating back to pre-pandemic days continue to surface.
Teachers’ unions continue to express concerns about class sizes, releasing a letter today saying the government’s plan is putting the health of students and teachers “in imminent danger.”
David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health, is now coming under fire for supporting the government’s plan. He took part in Thursday’s press conference and said he’s “satisfied” with the precautions to ensure the health of children, including mandatory masking and handwashing protocols.
“If there was that concern now I would not recommend opening at this stage,” Williams says. “I don’t see those risks. We are in a much safer place than we were.”
Williams alluded to the risks posed by mental health issues. “We are concerned that there is a risk of not opening.”
Lecce accused teachers’ unions of “obstructing” the government’s plans.
Lecce says that the government’s plan “is informed by science.”
Meanwhile, Ontario’s four major unions representing education workers have requested an immediate meeting with the Minister of Labour. They contend that the government’s plans to reopen schools fail to meet standards of the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.