Unions representing Hamilton education workers are skeptical of Ontario’s plan to reopen schools next Wednesday and believe students will not be spending much time in classrooms before returning to learning at distance.
The province announced Thursday that students will resume in-person learning on January 5, instead of two days earlier.
He said he would give staff N95 masks, provide 3,000 additional HEPA filters to Ontario schools and, for now, only allow low-contact indoor sports and some after-school activities.
He also said that children under 12 and anyone infected with COVID-19 who has been vaccinated only need to self-isolate for five days after feeling the first symptoms. If symptoms improve for at least 24 hours and they follow public health measures, they may stop isolating themselves.
“Schools should be the last to close and the first to open… our children have sacrificed a lot in 20 months,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, at the press conference Thursday after- midday.
He said the two-day delay was enough as a buffer time instead of pushing back the reopening for a week like British Columbia and Nova Scotia did. Some Ontario cities start later, with school boards in Niagara, for example, moving up on January 10, due to a later start to their Christmas vacation.
Questions and concerns from unions, students, teachers
Hamilton Public Health has said keeping schools open is one of its top priorities.
Local schools are moving forward with a January 5 start, but Nick de Koning, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), said he expects schools do not stay open for long as Omicron spreads quickly.
“You have a classroom full of students who eat lunch every day without their masks. And if this variant is so contagious, how can you keep it from spreading to schools? ” He asked.
Laura Christian, a grade 3 teacher with the Hamilton Public School Board, agrees.
“There is absolutely a feeling of fear,” she said when asked how educators feel for next week.
She said she felt more secure knowing she would have an N95 mask, but added that she wished she had access to one sooner.
Susan Lucek, president of Local 527 of the Canadian Union of Office and Professional Employees (COPE), which primarily represents teacher assistants, said she had “serious concerns” for staff, noting a record number of retirements and resignations of its members “due to exhaustion”. “
Many of its members work with special education students, many of whom do not wear masks.
Masking is a problem with all students according to Caspian Richard, a grade 9 student in the public system.
“They don’t really follow protocol,” he said. “They kiss, they spit on each other, their masks are taken off, they run around, change seats, it’s not very hygienic.”
However, he is happy to find his friends again. Her mother said that despite the risks, she believes having Richard in school outweighs the risks to her mental health and development.
Daryl Jerome, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation in Hamilton, said students should also get N95 masks, educators need faster tests, and educators need better access to booster injections.
Sergio Cacoilo, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association for Hamilton High Schools, said 3,000 HEPA filters are not enough for schools in Hamilton, let alone the entire province.
Cacoilo added that he did not understand why the start of the school year was delayed by only two days.
Hamilton school boards are scrambling to prepare for Wednesday
Pat Daly, president of the Catholic School Board, echoed this comment, especially if the N95 masks and HEPA filters don’t arrive before that date.
The public and Catholic school boards worked Thursday evening preparing papers for families, students and staff. Public school principal Manny Figueiredo said he was unable to comment on Thursday due to the same meetings.
At least three hours after the province’s announcement, school boards were still awaiting a note from the Ministry of Education with specific details on the reopening.
The two school boards said they ordered N95 masks but don’t know when they will arrive. When the masks appear, they will need to test them on staff members. They are also waiting for an unknown quantity of HEPA filters which will arrive at an unknown time.
WATCH: Ontario to delay back to school until Wednesday January 5
Daly said masks and filters are appreciated, but the other bright spot in the announcement is the reduction in isolation time, which will free up education workers.
“There has been a significant staff shortage on our board and councils across the province,” he said.
Daly said he understood the safety concerns raised by unions, but said the board is committed to following public health guidelines and making schools as safe as possible.
“I really hope and pray that we don’t pivot, but I don’t want to speculate.”
Richards, the 9th grader, is not so optimistic.
“It’s a false hope,” he said.