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More funding, health, equity measures needed ahead of September school reopening: OSSTF

The union representing thousands of Ontario high school teachers and education workers is raising the alarm over what it calls "clear risks" involved with reopening public schools in September. 

Education ministry urges OSSTF to take 'less combative approach' with government

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation says educators should be at the forefront of decisions made on next year's curriculum. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The union representing thousands of Ontario high school teachers and education workers is raising the alarm over what it calls "clear risks" involved with reopening public schools in September in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a draft report obtained by CBC News, members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) say although education stakeholders are eager to reopen schools, there are "unique issues" that the provincial government must deal with before resuming in-person classes this fall. 

Among other things, the union is calling on the government to provide more personal protective equipment, more cleaning and more funding for the increased staffing it says will be needed to keep everyone as safe as possible from the novel coronavirus.

"All education stakeholders are contemplating the question, 'What will the school year look like next year?'' the document states. 

"Many publications stress that there are clear risks involved with resuming our pre COVID-19 routines, without appropriate health and safety procedures in place."

The report, which is still in its first draft, will come out in its final form next week, OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said in an interview with CBC Toronto Friday.  

OSSTF president Harvey Bischof says the union hasn't been consulted by the government so far in its plan to reopen schools in the fall, but that the union is 'absolutely committed' to collaborating if the province is willing. (CBC)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced last month that the province is cancelling in-person learning for the school year until September because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says a full plan for reopening the province's schools will be released by the end of June — including measures to ensure physical distancing and restrictions on the movement of students at school — Bischof says the province needs to take additional steps in its reopening plan, and do it quickly. 

"The primary consideration is health and safety for students and for educators," he said. 

"We have to figure out a way to ensure that is delivered." 

Ministry meeting with education sector over reopening

Alexandra Adamo, spokesperson for Minister Lecce, said the ministry has been meeting with groups in the Ontario education sector, including the OSSTF, because it is committed to reopening schools safely.

"As soon as the school closure began, in mid-March, we moved quickly to initiate formal and regular consultation with the education sector including teacher unions. In fact, over the course of the closure, we have met with our labour partners over 70 times, including with the OSSTF. We are committed to getting students and staff safely back into schools," Adamo said.

She said a partnership is needed to proceed as the pandemic continues. 

"Our hope is that OSSTF will take a more collaborative, and less combative, approach with government, parents, and communities, as we work together to serve our kids," she said.

The province, meanwhile, will continue to consult with front-line workers, parents, scientists and health professionals, as as well as Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, to ensure students are safe when they return in September, she added.

Enhanced health, equity measures needed, union says

OSSTF's paper presents four guiding principles that "must be addressed" by the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and local school boards to "ensure a safe return for our members and our students." 

The union is offering recommendations targeting the following four main areas of concern:

  • Health and safety — The union says all requirements contained within the Ontario Health and Safety Act must be met, including sufficient personal protective equipment, cleaning, COVID-19 testing and physical distancing. 
  • Equity — OSSTF says equity must be at the "centre" of planning for the next school year, and increased efforts should be made to provide support to students and staff who require it. 
  • Funding — Additional funding will be required, the unions says, related to health and safety costs, replacing equipment, and increased staffing. 
  • Collective agreements — The union says central collective agreements must continue to be followed. 

The draft report has not yet been submitted to the province.

OSSTF was the last teachers' union to reach a deal with the province after contentious negotiations that led to walkouts and school closures.

That contract was ratified last month — you can read details here

Educators should dictate curriculum decisions: OSSTF

In addition to those recommendations, Bischof says educators' professional judgments should be at the forefront of any decisions made regarding the coming school year's curriculum. 

He says there should be a "high degree of flexibility" in the requirement that courses be 110 hours in length. That flexibility, Bischof says, will allow for shorter courses that would allow for cleaning days and additional school closures. 

He says this would be especially important for adult education or "quadmester programs" where students may have additional obligations.

"A high degree of flexibility is going to be required under a wide variety of circumstances that will exist in various places around the province," Bischof said. 

"If the ministry tries to impose any sort of one-size-fits-all provision on returning students, it's simply not going to work." 

The document also recommends that students be allowed the option of carrying a reduced number of courses for the 2020-2021 school year. 

"We want to do what's best for your students," Bischof added.

"They're going to miss the boat in terms of how to best serve students." 

Province has set up 'tables' to discuss reopening

According to the provincial government, the education ministry has set up a number of tables, or working groups, to discuss COVID-19 in education. The province is meeting with education unions and teacher federations and discussions are covering such issues as assessment, mental health, access to learning devices and the internet, health and safety, and management of schools.

Discussions are expected to continue this week.

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