Shift to remote learning could have been avoided, says Ontario elementary teachers’ union president

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The pivot to remote learning could have been avoided if the province had funded and implemented safety measures at the onset of the pandemic, said the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) president Karen Brown.

“This shift to remote learning is frustrating because we know it could have been avoided had the province funded and implemented safety measures at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and not half-measures,” Brown said in a statement. “We recognize the hardships that come with another round of remote learning. To ensure this is the last time we need this emergency measure, we will continue to call on the Ford government to invest in adequate infection prevention measures.”

On Monday Ontario announced that schools would pivot to online instruction for at least two weeks, until January 17, to curtail the surge in cases and hospitalizations caused by the highly transmissible Omicron COVID-19 variant. Acknowledging that it was a “safer decision”, ETFO reiterated its call for additional action to ensure the return to in-person learning is safe and sustainable.

“Over the winter break and following last week’s announcement, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) advocated for a short delay to the restart of in-person learning so that additional protections could be in place before students and education workers return. Given the rapid spread of Omicron across Ontario, today’s (Monday) announcement is a safer decision than the one made last week, but additional action is still needed,” the statement read.

Last Friday, the province pushed back the start date for in-person learning from January 3 to 5 amid concerns about the safe return to school amid the surge in daily infections. The Ford government promised to provide teachers with N95 masks by Wednesday. Three days later, the province did an about turn announcing the return to a modified Stage 2 of Ontario’s reopening plan instead which included remote learning.

“As the pandemic surges, the Ford government must invest in infection prevention and control measures that ensure in-person learning can continue safely and sustainably,” added Brown. “Last week’s decision came dangerously close to risking the safety of students and ETFO members. We share the belief that in-person learning is the best and most equitable way for students to learn, but it must be safe.”

ETFO has listed layers of protection which it believes will contribute to safe in-person learning. These include:

  • N95s for all education workers
  • Vaccinations for everyone working in, or attending a school or campus who is eligible and can be vaccinated safely
  • Priortizing booster shots for education workers
  • Installation of HEPA filters in all classrooms and public/shared spaces in schools
  • Providing Rapid Antigen Tests to students and education workers to minimize absenteeism and learning loss

It also wants the province to continue to monitor and report COVID-19 cases/outbreaks in schools and ensure they are communicated to close contacts. ETFO says, “The suspension of this practice has resulted in grave concern and hesitancy about a return to in-person learning, especially because additional infection prevention and control measures, like N95 masks, are not yet in place.”

“There must also be a plan to address staff absenteeism, which we can anticipate given the impact of isolation requirements on the health care sector and the spread of Omicron; and the Ford government must expand the paid sick leave program immediately,” ETFO said in the statement.

ETFO president Karen Brown says, “We want to welcome students back to school as quickly as possible, but schools must be safe, and we need to see more than a press conference or two to be assured that they are.”

ETFO represents 83,000 elementary public school teachers, occasional teachers, and education professionals across the province.

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