The following ETFO media release was posted on January 19, 2021.
While the government postponed the restart of in-person learning for Southern Ontario, students and educators have resumed in-person learning in Northern Ontario, and in-person learning has continued uninterrupted in some special education programs across the province. Despite the increased risk of transmission highlighted by the government’s own health experts, the government has yet to implement additional protections for students, educators and other staff currently working in schools.
“Over the last week, we’ve heard words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘scary’ from public health experts urging us to take COVID-19 seriously. For months, we’ve asked the Ford government to do the same thing. Their reckless, haphazard response to COVID-19 has repeatedly left Ontarians to fend for themselves,” said Sam Hammond, President of ETFO. “The Ford government must take action now to ensure a reopening that it is both safe and sustainable to prevent further disruption and negative impact on the well-being of students and educators.”
For some students with complex special education needs, there are no viable alternatives to the highly specialized in-person programs they currently attend. However, their safety, and that of the educators and other school-based staff that support them, should not be compromised.
“The pandemic has hit the disability community particularly hard, removing access to vital supports and services in the community. Endless changes to school routine and the move to online learning have been disastrous for many autistic students,” said Laura Kirby-McIntosh, President of the Ontario Autism Coalition. “The decision to keep schools open so a semblance of normalcy and routine can be felt for these students is the right decision. However, more needs to be done by this government and school boards to ensure consistency for students. And as an educator myself, I strongly believe much more needs to be done to protect the safety of education workers.”
ETFO calls on the government to provide immediate, emergency funding to school boards to implement increased safety measures for these programs and to ensure a safe return for all students and education workers. Additional safety measures should include: risk assessments for every classroom where students are learning in person; higher-grade personal protective equipment (PPE); enhanced and more frequent cleaning protocols in in-person classrooms; portable air purification units and carbon dioxide monitors for all classrooms that are open; evidence of completion of a COVID-19 screener; reduced class sizes; and expanded voluntary, broad-based asymptomatic testing throughout Ontario. ETFO also asks that all educators and education workers required to deliver in-person learning to run special education programs be given the opportunity for vaccination as soon as possible.
ETFO has also written to public health units, asking them to ensure school boards implement additional safety measures to protect students and educators. We are also asking for local COVID-19 task forces to be created in partnership with school boards, public health authorities and worker representatives.
Noted Hammond, “Educators firmly believe that quality in-person learning, when done safely, is what is best for our students. Unfortunately, due to the government’s repeated refusal to make the necessary investments, this is simply not possible in much of our province.”