As It Happens·Q&A

Ontario's back-to-school plan puts teachers at risk, says union leader

Students in Ontario are heading back to school in the fall, but a major teachers' union says the province's plan puts teachers and students at risk.

Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario president calls for reduced classes and mandatory masks

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, says students in kindergarten through Grade 8 should be in classroom reduced class counts and mandatory mask policies. (Michael Wilson/CBC)
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Transcript

Ontario's new back-to-school plan asks too much of teachers and doesn't do enough to protect them, says the head of a provincial teachers' union. 

Under the $309-million back-to-school plan announced Thursday,  students in Kindergarten to Grade 8 will attend school full time in September, with their usual classroom sizes.

Some high school students, depending on the student populations in their area, will attend school on alternating days in classes of about 15. 

Masks will be mandatory for students in Grades 4 through 12, while younger children will be encouraged, but not required, to cover their faces. 

Parents will also be allowed to opt their children out of in-person classes. 

Ontario saw 89 new infections of the novel coronavirus on Thursday, marking the second consecutive day with fewer than 100 new cases. There are currently just under 1,400 active cases of COVID-19 provincewide.

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about the fall school plan. Here is part of their conversation. 

Is this the plan parents and kids needed to hear?

Absolutely not. For months, the premier and the minister of education have promised people in this province that they would spare no expense to ensure the safety of people, including kids, in this province, and today they broke that.

A very good example of that is the fact that they have chosen not to decrease class sizes from Kindergarten through Grade 8, with almost every stakeholder, parent group and SickKids [hospital], in fact, recommended that that's what should happen.

What are you hearing from teachers about how they are feeling about this plan and heading back to the classroom?

For months, our members have been anxious and extremely concerned about what reopening of schools would look like. Today has done very little to reassure them about their health and safety as they go back into classrooms.

Someone just sent me an email saying that based on this plan, restaurants, grocery stores and gyms in this province have more safety protocols in place than our classrooms will in September. 

  • Watch | Ontario Premier Doug Ford says on kids heading back to school:
Premier Doug Ford says school will look and feel a lot like it used to in September, with five days a week of in-class learning, though there are some exceptions. 2:32

What are your biggest concerns right now about safety issues?

First and foremost is that the minister is saying that class sizes will remain the same. We and almost everyone else advocated for reduced class sizes of 15 or lower. And that should happen.

Because it's not happening, it will be almost impossible for our members and educators to implement social distancing in classrooms that are already jam-packed.

Because of that, we're concerned about the notion of no masks, or masks [being] voluntary, for students in Kindergarten through Grade 3. We think everyone in that school should have a mask or a face covering to protect them.

The minister has committed to online learning for those students that stay home. I'm not sure who's going to be providing that online learning if they're expecting teachers to be in classrooms with a full class every day. And we certainly hope that once we see the details that [they're] not expecting those teachers to do that in the evenings.

The province is hiring more public health nurses and providing personal protective equipment for teachers and staff. Will that mitigate some of your safety concerns?

Frankly, we're pleased that the minister has committed to face coverings for all staff in every school board across the province. That's a step in the right direction.

Those 500 nurses will be spread over 34 health units in this province, and we really want to see the details. Dr. [Barbara] Yaffe [Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health] today talked about some of their responsibilities. But we want to see how closely they'll be interacting with schools in this province. And we think the number of 500 is too few, frankly.

In your view ... why are they taking this approach?

If they're trying to save money, that's an extreme concern, and should not be happening. It's unconscionable when we're talking about the lives of staff and students in this province. You'll have to ask them what their motivation is.

You represent teachers in Ontario, but you were recently named president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation. What are you hearing from teachers across the country about their concerns?

The concerns from other teacher federations and unions in the country are pretty much the same — an absolute lack of real meaningful consultation, with the exception of B.C., who has done a much better job of that. 

But in terms of teachers, they're anxious, they're concerned about their health and safety ... and that of their students across this country. They want to be in classrooms, but they want it to be as safe as possible. 

Give me your best guess, your expectation, for what you believe will happen come September.

It's all speculation, but I am very concerned, and our members are very concerned, based on what was released today with full classes, no reduction in classes, no mask or face coverings for students Kindergarten to Grade 3, we are concerned that this whole plan is going to fall apart and that we're going to see a second wave.

Teachers and educators will have to prepare everything they normally do for a school year start in September, and then on top of that, they have to deal with — and they will — deal with all of the protocols and safety issues that are are put in place.

And I heard today, you know, that ... teachers and educators should be keeping track of, watching closely, what's happening with students in terms of their health, and that's just not appropriate for teachers to take on the role of a nurse or a medical practitioner.

Do you think this is a done deal or can you negotiate and get better precautions?

I know that numerous stakeholders in this province are now saying very much the same thing that I am. And it is incumbent upon this minister and the premier to call those stakeholders together to a table to have in-depth discussions and allow us to provide input on how this plan can be made better.

But the first step in that is this government has to realize that the $300 million that they've put into the plan is not sufficient.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC Toronto. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Edited for length and clarity. 

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