Be cautious with back-to-school plans, Ontario elementary teachers union urges

The province needs to “take a cautious approach” in reopening schools, says the public elementary teachers union.In response to the Monday release of a key report from pediatric experts at Sick Kids and CHEO in Ottawa — and concerns raised Tuesday by the province’s chief officer of health about an uptick in COVID cases expected in September — the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario urged the province to “implement necessary safety measures to prevent possible outbreaks in the fall,” given that children under 12 are not eligible for vaccination.The Sick Kids report said masks, cohorting and physical distancing are not needed this fall in schools for any grades in areas where the COVID-19 risk is low, and urged improved ventilation and continued good hygiene and cleaning practices.It also said sports, music and extracurriculars should resume — outdoors in higher-risk areas — and that schools should only be shut down amid “catastrophic circumstances” because of the toll such measures take on kids and given the evidence of limited transmission of COVID in schools. Ontario students have spent 26 weeks out of school, with online lessons, since the pandemic began a year and a half ago — the most of any province. “This Sick Kids report was released on the same day as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that everyone wear masks in schools,” said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, also known as ETFO, which represents 83,000 educators.“Schools have been shown to be sources of transmission, and ETFO is very concerned that pediatricians and other experts are not advocating for student masking at all levels, when evidence shows that relaxing masking rules has resulted in school outbreaks in other jurisdictions,” he said in a written statement.Hammond also said that “it is unclear whether the report’s criteria for determining low risk will ensure that safety protocols are relaxed slowly enough to ensure that there is not a return to constantly pivoting to online learning due to self-isolation requirements and lockdowns.”Like other unions and opposition critics, Hammond also called for Education Minister Stephen Lecce to release fall back-to-school plans, adding “there is no time to lose.”“With the more transmissible Delta variant set to become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Ontario, and children under 12 unable to access vaccinations, the province must implement the necessary precautions to protect students,” he said.Lecce has repeatedly said the government wants students to be learning in person in the fall. The province is expected to release its plans in the coming weeks.Liberal MPP and former education minister Mitzie Hunter said the province needs to consult educators and unions about what needs to be in place as school starts in several weeks, and should have released plans earlier to give boards enough time.“I don’t want to see an unprepared return to school where the government has not thought about how you do screening, surveillance testing and making sure that this very infectious Delta variant is not impacting the safety of students and other education workers,” she said. “… Wishful thinking without the planning is not going to do it … this is the second summer and second back-to-school (since the pandemic began) and we need to get it right for our students, for our parents and for our education workers.”Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

Be cautious with back-to-school plans, Ontario elementary teachers union urges

The province needs to “take a cautious approach” in reopening schools, says the public elementary teachers union.

In response to the Monday release of a key report from pediatric experts at Sick Kids and CHEO in Ottawa — and concerns raised Tuesday by the province’s chief officer of health about an uptick in COVID cases expected in September — the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario urged the province to “implement necessary safety measures to prevent possible outbreaks in the fall,” given that children under 12 are not eligible for vaccination.

The Sick Kids report said masks, cohorting and physical distancing are not needed this fall in schools for any grades in areas where the COVID-19 risk is low, and urged improved ventilation and continued good hygiene and cleaning practices.

It also said sports, music and extracurriculars should resume — outdoors in higher-risk areas — and that schools should only be shut down amid “catastrophic circumstances” because of the toll such measures take on kids and given the evidence of limited transmission of COVID in schools.

Ontario students have spent 26 weeks out of school, with online lessons, since the pandemic began a year and a half ago — the most of any province.

“This Sick Kids report was released on the same day as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that everyone wear masks in schools,” said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, also known as ETFO, which represents 83,000 educators.

“Schools have been shown to be sources of transmission, and ETFO is very concerned that pediatricians and other experts are not advocating for student masking at all levels, when evidence shows that relaxing masking rules has resulted in school outbreaks in other jurisdictions,” he said in a written statement.

Hammond also said that “it is unclear whether the report’s criteria for determining low risk will ensure that safety protocols are relaxed slowly enough to ensure that there is not a return to constantly pivoting to online learning due to self-isolation requirements and lockdowns.”

Like other unions and opposition critics, Hammond also called for Education Minister Stephen Lecce to release fall back-to-school plans, adding “there is no time to lose.”

“With the more transmissible Delta variant set to become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Ontario, and children under 12 unable to access vaccinations, the province must implement the necessary precautions to protect students,” he said.

Lecce has repeatedly said the government wants students to be learning in person in the fall. The province is expected to release its plans in the coming weeks.

Liberal MPP and former education minister Mitzie Hunter said the province needs to consult educators and unions about what needs to be in place as school starts in several weeks, and should have released plans earlier to give boards enough time.

“I don’t want to see an unprepared return to school where the government has not thought about how you do screening, surveillance testing and making sure that this very infectious Delta variant is not impacting the safety of students and other education workers,” she said.

“… Wishful thinking without the planning is not going to do it … this is the second summer and second back-to-school (since the pandemic began) and we need to get it right for our students, for our parents and for our education workers.”

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy