Hamilton teachers and unions 'concerned' with public school board reopening plan for COVID-19

Local union leaders representing public school educators are "unsatisfied" and "concerned" with Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's current reopening plan as classrooms are set to welcome students in less than a month.

School boards are working hard, but unions say there are still too many unanswered questions

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School board's COVID-19 reopening plan has not calmed teachers and unions as the school year comes closer. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Local union leaders representing public school educators are "unsatisfied" and "concerned" with Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's current reopening plan as classrooms are set to welcome students in less than a month.

Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local and Daryl Jerome, president of the local bargaining unit of Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, both said the plans for elementary and high schools are lacking in detail.

"Do I feel confident with the information I have right now? I would say no," Jerome said.

HWDSB released an update to its reopening plan on Monday, which details how it is spending some of the money from the province. But union leaders say it leaves many questions unanswered, including how to manage a COVID-19 outbreak. The lack of clarity is drawing concern around the safety of reopening schools.

Jerome told CBC he hasn't been able to answer many of the questions from teachers and is still waiting for the board to provide a basic day structure for teachers.

"I'm sitting here trying to field questions from my members I don't have answers to and the board is just so slow in getting them out. I'm not throwing it entirely on them because the Ministry of Education is to blame for a lot of this, but at this point, I'm not confident," Jerome explained.

"Health and safety, PPE, you name it, I don't have answers to it ... I feel so bad."

Jerome added that many teachers still don't know what their own classrooms will look like.

Sorensen said the plan for elementary schools makes physical distancing impossible.

"Classes from grades 4 to 8, there are no hard caps ... those numbers given spacial requirements are way too large to ensure two metres apart," he explained.

"We would hope between the ministry and the board, they would adhere to and follow the advice from public health which is physical distancing of at least two metres."

He said elementary schools should at least match high school class sizes, which will include 15 students in a room.

Teachers concerned about returning to class

Both union leaders said teachers expressed concerns about going back to school.

"They're concerned about their safety, their students safety, many of them have family members who are vulnerable and they're concerned about what happens, hopefully it never happens, but what happens if there are positive cases," Sorensen told CBC.

A photo of a student in France. It's unclear what classes will look like in Hamilton, according to public school unions leaders. They say teachers are concerned as September approaches. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

Some teachers won't be going back to school for medical reasons, but it's unclear how many that will affect.

"Under labour laws they have a right to seek medical accommodation," Sorensen said. "Hopefully it doesn't come to that."

Many teachers are parents themselves and are also facing a dilemma in deciding whether their own kids should return to class.

"We struggle with that too. My wife and I are both educators," Jerome said, "and we have a daughter going into Grade 7 and every day, we're like, 'Do we send her back? Do we keep her home?' We don't have the information from the board to make that decision."

Jerome adds that there's uncertainty about how much support teachers who work remotely will get from school boards and the province.

As of now, both Sorensen and Jerome say the current plans appear to align with collective bargaining agreements, something that wasn't the case early on into planning — and something that could happen again.

"I'm trying not to be cynical, but you never know what can happen between now and the start of school," Jerome said, also noting that the board is working hard to not breach agreements.

But despite all the confusion, Sorensen said teachers do want to return to classes.

"Teachers want to be back as much as students want to be back and as much as parents want to be back but that desire to get back should not run roughshod over public safety."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.


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