Teachers’ federations raise concerns about January shutdown

By Kirk Winter

Teachers’ federations raise concerns about January shutdown

Premier Doug Ford’s announcement of temporary closures of all publicly-funded schools in Ontario beginning Jan. 4 has raised the ire of Ontario’s three largest teacher federations.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation bemoan the lack of consultation regarding the closings, the poorly thought out return of elementary students to in-person learning while the province is still locked down and the lack of detail and inherent inequalities regarding virtual learning.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce have temporarily closed all schools beginning Jan. 4, with all students at all grades transitioning to virtual learning on that day.

Elementary students are scheduled to return to in-person learning on Jan. 11, while secondary students will not return to brick-and-mortar schools until Jan. 25.  The province hopes that this closure will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 which is currently spiralling ever higher, particularly in southern Ontario.

Liz Stuart, president of OECTA, which represents Catholic elementary and secondary teachers in Kawartha Lakes, believes the decisions to close schools “is long overdue.”

However, Stuart wonders where the consultation was between the province and the education workers in the lead up to this decision being made.

“The province should have been engaging the education community in this decision,” Stuart said, “and there has instead been no prior consultation and few details of what this closure is going to look like.”

“The government should have been planning for this scenario for months,” Stuart continued, “but instead we have once again been left to scramble and pick up the slack for the Ford’s government stubbornness and half-measures.”

Sam Hammond, president of ETFO, which represents all public elementary teachers in Kawartha Lakes, was baffled by the provincial decision to bring elementary school students back to school on Jan. 11, while secondary students are being asked to stay home until Jan. 25.

“The plan to reopen elementary schools in the midst of a province-wide lockdown doesn’t make sense. These new provincial restrictions will not be effective unless every possible action is taken to prevent COVID-19 transmission in elementary schools when they reopen. It’s time to do what is urgently needed, not what is politically convenient,” Hammond said.

“By downplaying the transmission of COVID-19 in elementary schools and refusing to provide the necessary funding, despite having billions of dollars in unused contingency funds, the Ford government has proven that they aren’t interested in ensuring all schools are safe,” Hammond said. “Re-opening schools with an underfunded and inequitable virtual learning strategy is not a solution.”

Hammond agrees with Stuart that the lack of planning by the province for this closure is truly unfortunate.

“Other provinces announced their post-winter break plans weeks ago,” noted Hammond. “By announcing Ontario’s plans over the holidays, Lecce is once again showing his disrespect for educators. Had this government made its decision earlier, boards, educators, families and students could have been better prepared for the transition back to virtual learning beginning Jan. 4.”

Harvey Bischoff, president of OSSTF, which represents all public high school teachers and some support staff in Kawartha Lakes, added his voice to the other leaders who criticized the lack of consultation.

“Once again, despite this announcement’s significant impact on Ontario’s publicly funded school system, there was no prior consultation with organizations representing front-line educators,” Bischoff said.

“This will lead to unnecessary flaws in implementation that could have been addressed in advance, and could have led to better decisions made in the best interests of Ontario students.”

Bischoff expressed concerns for educators, support staff, parents and students regarding the contradictory public health message the province was delivering.

“The premier’s statements were riddled with contradictions that simply create confusion for the public, for educators, for parents and students. While it has been acknowledged that the test positivity rate for 14-to-17-year-olds is the highest for any demographic, the claim was made that schools are not a source of COVID-19 spread. Yet, while claiming that schools are not a problem with regard to COVID-19, they are being shut down for three weeks or longer. It is impossible to reconcile these competing assertions,” Bischoff stated.

Bischoff also reminded Ontarians of the inherent inequalities Hammond noted regarding virtual education.

“Sadly, the government has not adequately mitigated the fact that many students and families do not have access to the technology or reliable internet connections that would allow access to online learning. This demonstrates a clear failure on the part of the Ford government to address the inequities created by relying solely upon online learning solutions for students.”

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