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Escalating conflict between Ontario government and teachers unions leaves schools in cloud of uncertainty

Ontario students and parents aren't the only ones with the jitters as classes are set to resume this month. Teachers say they're facing a lot of unknowns as they head back to school due to the novel COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers' unions take province to labour board over workplace safety as first day of school approaches

George Webster Elementary School student Tianna Grant, 11, takes part in a return-to-school demonstration on Aug. 27, 2020. Some teachers say they are uncertain what or how they will be teaching. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Doug Garlick packed up his personal belongings Monday in his Pickering, Ont. classroom as he prepared for an uncertain school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the last few years, the 61-year-old has taught Grade 1 in the Durham District School Board. But this year, because of the danger the novel coronavirus poses to him due to his Crohn's disease and diabetes, he's teaching online.

But like so many teachers in Ontario, he still doesn't know what date classes will begin. He also doesn't know what grade he'll be teaching, or even how he'll be teaching it.

"We're not sure what platform we'll be using, what delivery method," he told CBC News over the phone. "There are many of us that are pretty close to panic at this stage, just not knowing what's going on."

Escalating conflict between unions and government

All the uncertainty comes amid an escalating conflict between Ontario Premier Doug Ford's government and four major teachers' unions. While Garlick and many other teachers will be holding virtual classes, others are worried about how teaching in classrooms during the pandemic might endanger their health.

The dispute is now headed to the province's labour board as the unions allege Ontario's school reopening plan violates its own workplace safety laws.

WATCH | Teachers share fears, anxieties about heading back to class:

Four Ontario teachers share their fears and anxieties about returning to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic and what they think should be done to keep staff, students and their families safe. 6:19

Parents can't expect teachers to be ready to start virtual programs this month, Garlick said.

"I cannot realistically know how that's going to happen because we don't know what we're doing yet," he said.

Garlick, like many teachers in the province, is expected to receive some additional training about online learning this week, but he doesn't know what it will cover.

After the pandemic forced the province to shut down schools in the spring, Garlick said, his class moved online. But he didn't teach in real time. Rather, students would visit class website at their leisure.

Grade 1 teacher Doug Garlick packs up in his classroom as schools get ready to reopen. He will be connecting with students virtually during the 2020-2021 school year because of health concerns, but doesn't yet know what grade he will be teaching. (Submitted by Doug Garlick)

This school year, he said, things may be different.

"I believe they're trying to put us more toward the live teaching method," he said. But that presents its own challenges, — especially with a large group of students with mixed abilities, he said.

'I am confused, scared'

"How do you teach them to read through a computer?" Garlick said.

He created his own solution to overcome the challenges posed by virtual teaching and learning during the pandemic.

Each day, he would drive to the homes of six different students and teach them in person, one on one, in their driveways.

He says he would even assign and collect homework by putting it in plastic Ziploc bags and leave them sealed for a few days before marking to prevent the spread of germs.

But when a relative of one of his students contracted COVID-19, the driveway lessons had to stop.

This school year, his doctor tells him, it's too risky to even try.

In the meantime, thousands of other Ontario teachers will be teaching students in person. But in-class learning has its challenges too, said Farzana Karmali, who teaches kindergarten French immersion for the Toronto District School Board.

Both students and teachers will be wearing masks to prevent the spread of the virus, among other measures. She questions how she can communicate when much of her face will be hidden.

Farzana Karmali, shown teaching French immersion to kindergarten students in Toronto, fears wearing a mask will get in the way of language learning. 'How will they see my lips?' she said. (Submitted by Farzana Karmali)

"How will they learn French? How will they see my lips?" Karmali said.

"I am confused, scared and I don't know how this is going to work."

Province prepared to shut schools if necessary

The provincial government says it is "sparing nothing" to keep children safe when schools reopen.

And if all the measures fall short, Ford said Monday he will once again shut them down.

"We're ready and we're going to move as soon as the outbreak happens," he told reporters. "If it really starts taking off, I will not hesitate for a second to close the schools down."

WATCH | What classes will look like in Canada's biggest school board:

CBC News gets a look at how two schools in the Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, are preparing for teachers and students to safely return to class during the COVID-19 pandemic. The board has been tweaking its plan based on feedback from teachers as opening day draws closer. 2:13

The premier said he couldn't understand the unions' perspective.

"We have done absolutely everything ... Every idea possible, we're putting into the classrooms," he said. "If you compare the report card with all the other provinces, it's night and day ... The teachers' unions just want to fight. They want to fight with everyone," Ford said.

Ford said he distinguishes between the unions and actual teachers he's spoken to whom he says tell him he will "do a great job."

But Karmali is wondering how she, as an individual teacher, is going to deal with students who start showing symptoms.

 "What am I supposed to do if a child is sick, comes up to me and is very close or is vomiting? " she asked.

"As a human being, a teacher, it's my role to be there as the child's parent. I'm not going to allow the child to throw up and not look after them, for example.

"I know that many parents will feel that going back to school will create a sense of normality for their children, but I don't know how this is going to be normal."

About the Author

Natalie Kalata

Senior Reporter, CBC News

Natalie is an award-winning senior reporter for CBC News Network and CBC The National specializing in breaking news. Whether it's a terror attack or a royal tour, she brings the stories to you. Natalie lives in Toronto with her husband and family.

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