Safety plans in place but concerns remain as schools set to reopen

By Megan Walchuk

Kids and parents are getting set to return to the classroom over the next week, but for teachers and education staff, the work is already in full swing. School staff have been cleaning surfaces, placing distancing stickers, and undergoing training on emerging health and safety recommendations. It’s the culmination of months of preparation by school boards, staff and the Northwestern Health Unit.
“It hasn’t been a completely smooth process to get to where we are,” said Monica Armour, of the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario, the bargaining unit for Ontario’s public elementary teachers. “We’ve been in contact with the board over the summer and throughout summer. It’s been an ongoing thing. It’s been a work summer this year.”
Although teachers are excited to get back into the classroom, and see their students in person, Armour noted that many members feel uneasy about regulations which have been put into place – or haven’t been. Physical distancing rules not compliant with public health’s recommended two-metre distance has caused particular concern, and prompted school boards to file legal action with the Labour relations Board earlier this week.
“All the kids are going to be in there at the same time. There’s no way that you can do two metre distancing,” said Armour. “Even the one metre distancing that has been proposed for the schools, is going to be extremely difficult in some places, depending on the number of students that end up being in person in the classroom.”
According to the Rainy River District School Board, roughly 85 per cent of students have opted for in-person learning, with 93 per cent returning in the Northwest Catholic District School Board. The remainder will be participating in remote learning options.
“Educators want the social distancing. That means we’d have smaller class sizes and frankly it comes down to money. There’s no money there,” She said. “What people have to realize is a lot of the money that has been given out is already in the system and it’s just a shell game. So they make an announcement to make it look like there’s new money, but there isn’t.”
When asked to speak to this allegation, MPP Greg Rickford deferred to education minister Stephen Lecce.
“Our plan to safely reopen schools has been informed by the best medical and scientific minds in the country,” said Lecce, in a written statement to the Times. “We are proud to lead the nation in COVID-19 school reopening funding, an aggressive masking policy for grades 4-12, hiring over 1300 custodians and $75M in additional cleaning funding, along with the hiring of 500 public health nurses to support student health in our schools. The evidence is emerging, and our plan is a living document – it’s meant to be augmented and adapted to apply the best advice as it emerges. The leading medical advice was clear that we must allow an opportunity for our students to return to school. We recognize that school boards have developed plans that best suit their local needs. We will never hesitate from taking further action to protect the health and safety of Ontario’s students and education staff.”
Frequent changes in procedures and protocols have also thrown a wrench in the transition back to school, charged Armour.
“We have been working with the board to finalize things as much as possible. But every time we think we have something settled and find something that will work, and follows the parameters set out, the government throws a curve ball. So there’s extreme frustration in that way,” she said. “We know how frustrating it is for parents and for the education workers, teachers, EAs, ECEs – everybody working in the school. We know how frustrated everybody is, because everybody wants to know what the final plan is.”
The boards are doing their best to alleviate some of that confusion, she noted. The Rainy River District School Board has an extensive Frequently Asked Question section on its website, and questions from parents are answered and posted regularly. The boards have also been working in conjunction with the Northwestern Health Unit, to build the best plan possible.
According to Brendan Hyatt, Director of Education at The Northwest Catholic District School Board, consultations with the NWHU have been extensive and ongoing, but the pandemic has forced changes throughout the process.
“The baseline is changing regularly. We’re going to move and adapt as we go,” he said.
School will look a little different for students this year, he said. Music will focus on theory, instead of singing or playing instruments. Gym equipment will be assigned to a cohort for terms, to limit the need for constant disinfection. Library classes will be limited in length, with returned books placed in a 72 hour quarantine before being returned to the stacks. Floor stickers and other markers have been placed, to guide distancing throughout the school.
“We’ve done the legwork to mitigate risk,” he said.
One area of concern for both the board and the union is staffing. The boards have traditionally shared occasional teachers. Northern Ontario has experienced a systemic shortage of teachers in recent years, noted Hyatt. Although the ideal would be to limit supply teachers to one facility, or even one cohort, that isn’t realistic in the north, he said. Many teachers make a living by substitute teaching full-time.
“If we say they can only be in one school, or one co-hort, we would be taking their livelihood away,” he said. “It’s something we’re working on. We’ve been doing some out of the box thinking on how we’re going to deal with that.”
The schools are mostly focussed on the basics of hand hygiene, distancing as much as possible, and increased cleaning. The board has increased its cleaning routines, and has added and additional 26 hours of cleaning per day, board-wide, which has translated into more than three additional employees.
Despite an extensive new protocol, many teachers are concerned that without physical distancing, safety will be difficult, said Armour.
“They’re concerned about their health and the health of the students. We all know what flu season and cold season is like in normal times, with the amount of kids that end up having it and how fast it spreads. As teachers, we know how fast that happens, how fast it can spread. So yes, there are lots of concerns,” she said. “Look at what the people in the schools are going to be dealing with. You’ve got the teacher plus probably an EA in the classroom, plus all the students. It’s going to be interesting, because that’s another one of those health issues that they’re just blatantly ignoring, because it doesn’t work. They don’t want to throw the money into it to make it work to make those smaller classes. And you have the teachers who are going from class to class to do prep time and French as a Second Language teachers. They have usually about six classes per day. Do that math. That’s going to be a lot of contacts. That’s where the concerns are, trying to make sure everybody stays safe.
“We hope it works. It will be devastating if it doesn’t.”