London

Unions say teachers face 'concern and anxiety' about COVID-19 return plans

CBC News spoke to representatives of two teachers unions who say the uncertainty surrounding elements of the province's plan to re-open schools is a significant source of stress for their members.

Return to school weeks away and union says key questions over safety, funding issues remain

New floor signs at Eagle Heights Elementary remind students about the hallway traffic flow and to stay two metres apart. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

When it comes to questions about the province's school reopening plans a lot of "I don't knows" continue to hang in the air.

Two teacher unions who spoke to CBC News say the lack of detail is a problem for parents but also for teachers, who say their members are feeling increasingly uneasy about the COVID-19 protocols as the Sept. 8 opening day moves closer. 

"There's some concern and anxiety around what the reopening might look like," said Craig Smith, the local president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO). "There are questions around the measures and whether students are safe and the kids in their care are safe." 

Liz Stuart, president of Ontario's English Catholic Teachers' Association, says her members have similar concerns, particularly about what they see as a lack of funding for crucial elements of the plan, including money for personal protective equipment.  

The Ontario government has asked school boards to prepare plans for three different learning scenarios:

  • Full opening: Students in class with new protocols for distancing and hand-washing. 
  • Students doing online learning from home: Likely to happen if there's a significant breakout of COVID-19 or a spike in cases. 
  • A hybrid model: The student body is split into two groups with half at home and only half in the classroom at a given time as a way to create physical distancing. 

The province is expected to inform teachers soon — perhaps as early as this week — about which model they will endorse for the start of the school year. 

A new hand washing station installed near the entrance at Eagle Heights Elementary School. Parents and students will have to get used to a lot of new rules aimed at curbing COVID-19 transmission when school resumes Sept. 8. (Andrew Lupton/CBC News)

Last week, the Thames Valley District School Board gave CBC News a quick tour of an elementary school where some of the new safety measures are being piloted, including extra distancing signs, limits on room occupancy as well as staggered recesses and student drop offs. 

And while the unions acknowledge the school boards are dealing with an unprecedented crisis, they say the province could be doing more to make the transition easier. 

Their key concerns are: 

1. No extra funding so far. Both Stuart and Smith point out that the province has so far not earmarked any money for all these extras, including teaching help and money for protective equipment. 

"As an elementary classroom teacher I can tell you that in an average, normal school year it's not unusual for a school to run out of soap and not be able to purchase any more," said Stuart. "The ministry hasn't said to boards 'Here's a fund, here's some money for this.'"

On Monday, the Ontario Liberals put forward their own school reopening plan. It calls for the hiring of 15,000 teachers to keep class sizes capped at 15. The Liberals estimate this, along with a handful of other measures, will cost the province a whopping $3.2 billion. Some money may be announced as part of the Ford government's school reopening plan, but so far teachers' unions say it stands as a big question mark.

"None of this will come without cost and the government has been reluctant to commit extra funding," Smith said. 

2. Potentially chaotic scheduling. If the province opts for the hybrid learning model, it means half of students will be learning at home, while the other half is in school. This could follow a schedule where student group A is in class Monday to Wednesday on one week and Thursday and Friday the next week, with the second group doing the opposite on the other days.

Smith says this model could create a scheduling nightmare for parents in search of child care and their employees. He points out that more than 60 per cent of ETFO members are parents themselves.

"On its face the hybrid model sounds like a reasonable compromise, but if you start to pull it apart a little bit, the operation of how it will work is difficult," he said.

3. Major workload issues. New and possibly shifting safety protocols, increased stress and fears of infection could create major workplace issues for teachers, Smith said. 

4. Tight timelines. As the Sept. 8 return date approaches, Stuart feels the province has left many of the logistics far too late to be done safely.

"They still don't have their plans in place or they're just putting the finishing touches on them," she said. "Their master plan was to go and tell the school boards to create three plans." 

5. Masking for elementary school students: Yes or no? There have been hints that high school students will have to wear masks in schools, but not elementary school students. Stuart says the province needs to come up with rules on this, and on distancing, based on science.

"The more prolonged the contact, the more likely the spread. So I think it's imperative that all students and teachers are provided with PPE and masks to curtail that spread. It's about keeping everybody safe."

At the same time masking can create problems for young children and the masks could become uncomfortable, especially when you consider that about 60 per cent of schools in London do not have air conditioning

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

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