Staff and students across Ontario will officially be heading back to school Monday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced at a news conference today, but some teachers are still raising concerns with the return to in-person learning just five days away.
Along with confirming the return to in-person learning on Jan. 17, Lecce, along with chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore, revealed changes for returning to in-person learning, including the distribution of rapid antigen tests, a modification in reporting procedures, staffing levels, and vaccination.
Officials from both the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) and the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB), said they were still learning all the details surrounding this afternoon's announcement.
“The Ministry of Education announced that schools will reopen to all students participating in in-person learning on Jan. 17. The SCDSB is preparing for the return to in-person learning and will provide further information to families [Jan. 13] after we receive the official memo and guidance from the Ministry of Education,” said public board spokesperson Sarah Kekewich.
Frances Bagley, director of education with the SMCDSB, said the Catholic board has always supported face-to-face classrooms as the best mode of learning for the majority of our students, as well as recognizing the impact that prolonged school closures can have on mental, social and physical well being.
However, Bagley acknowledged a return to in-person learning next week also raises many understandable concerns regarding the safety of schools and classrooms.
"We are fully committed to continuing to work closely with our public health partners to ensure that the health and safety of all students and staff remains our top priority," she said. "Over the past few weeks, some additional measures have been put into place including: N95 masks for all schools staff; priority vaccinations and booster access for the education sector; we are anticipating additional rapid antigen tests for students and staff; three-ply masks for students; updates to the school and child-care screening; and 35 new HEPA filters which we expect delivery of shortly."
Bagley added the board is still in the process of reviewing details provided to it in a Ministry of Education memo earlier today and in plans to update its School Opening Plan with new guidance to further improve student and staff safety in the next few days.
"We will share details with staff and families prior to schools opening on Jan. 17," she said.
Jen Hare, president of the Simcoe district for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), said what was announced today is "not new information."
“Anything he outlined today that appears to be an additional step of protection in our schools is not new information. The boards were already planning on distributing as many rapid tests as they were given, which is still absolutely the plan,” she said.
And although the minister also says tests will be in place by Monday, Hare says it's a promise she doesn’t see coming to fruition.
“I really don’t see how that can happen with two business days left because they have to arrive at the board and be distributed from there," she said.
Schools within the public board aren’t all seeing additional HEPA filters, said Hare, and she remains concerned about the lack of tracing and notification to families should there be a positive COVID-19 case in the school.
“The idea of being notified when your child’s school has a 30 per cent attendance absenteeism… is just alarming. You think 30 per cent is reasonable until you consider that quite a few high schools in Barrie have 2,000 students. If you add staff on top of that… you’re looking at about 600 to 700 people missing from the school before you’re told there’s a potential problem of COVID in the building," Hare said.
"I would like to think we don’t need to wait until 600 (people) are exposed or sick with the virus before you’re given notification," she added.
What the public hears and what actually happens inside schools can often be two different things, Hare said.
“I feel like the minister of education is very skilled at saying things that sound comforting, but the reality of how these things play out inside the walls of our building is very different,” she said. “He is very smooth, but he’s not very realistic.”
Allyn Janicki, president with the local Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (Secondary), told BarrieToday the decision made to close schools in the face of rising case numbers, and then reopen them when hospitals and paramedic services around the province are having to limit access and service, “defies any logical explanation."
“Time and time again, this government has illustrated that it has no idea how schools work, and worse — (do) not really care. The Ministry of Education has abdicated its responsibilities by downloading onto school boards responsibilities, far beyond their scope, to address safety in a pandemic,” she said.
Most school boards have had to pick and choose where to allocate the limited number of HEPA filters they've received, Janicki added.
The notion that retired teachers can step in to “save the day” will not solve the problem, she said, pointing out this was in place last year and the impact was negligible.
“Retired educators are not choosing to put themselves at risk as occasional teachers. Further this agreement was made and announced on Jan. 4. The government parading it out now a week later is nothing more than an attempt to pad their weak reopening strategy," Janicki said.
The distribution of N95 masks, Janicki continued, is something that should have occurred back in September.
“Students are still wearing cloth masks or surgical masks — or in some cases no masks at all," she said.
Janicki says the reality is that a lot still needs to be done to make schools safe for students and staff, including prioritizing students five years of age for first, second, and third vaccinations as appropriate, establishing a policy requiring the masking of all students in schools with improved guidelines to ensure masking compliance; making additional rapid antigen tests available to all school staff and students and implement a comprehensive testing and tracking program including proof of negative test after isolation and before returning to in-person school.
Continuing to report publicly on cases reported within the board, installation of HEPA filter units in all classrooms, in-person learning spaces and office/administration spaces in all schools, the development of rigorous cohorting requirements for all grades, as well as re-examining lunch practices to mitigate risk should also be considered, she added.
Schools will be no safer if they reopen then they would have been Jan. 3, Janicki said, which would be a “colossal failure.”
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is cautious about the province’s new safety measures. To safely return to in-person learning and to provide the greatest level of protection to Ontario’s students, teachers, other education workers, and communities, the ETFO continues to call on the Ford government to address a number of its concerns, the ETFO says.
The ETFO says this includes ensuring everyone working in or attending a school who can be safely vaccinated is vaccinated, and those who are unvaccinated are being tested per ministry guidance; improve ventilation and install HEPA filters in all classrooms and public/shared spaces in schools; reducing class sizes to promote physical distancing; implementing robust testing and contact tracing programs; and returning to monitoring and reporting COVID-19 cases/outbreaks in schools.
The ETFO is also also asking for the implementation of a sustainable plan to address an anticipated increase in staff absences due to COVID-related illness and/or isolation; and to expand the paid sick leave program immediately.
Hare said she knows parents will make whatever decision is best for their family and hopes they understand teachers will do whatever they can to make sure students are getting what they need. That being said, she anticipates there to be a lot of chaos, uncertainty and nerves as staff and students head back to class.
“As long as we remember that we are in this together to help our kids we will make it through, but it will be very unpleasant for the next little while," she said.