On the very day schools in Ontario were abruptly closed in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, OSSTF/FEESO formally reached out to the Ford government and the Minister of Education to offer assistance in working through the challenges that lay ahead. A letter from President Harvey Bischof to the Minister of Education emphasized that OSSTF/FEESO would welcome any opportunity to work with the government to ensure that the province’s schools remain safe environments for both educators and students. The letter also asked if there were specific ways in which OSSTF/FEESO could assist in the effort to protect schools from the spread of COVID-19.
That letter received no response, and through the weeks and months that followed, the Minister of Education flatly ignored all of OSSTF/FEESO’s requests to be included in planning discussions regarding the reopening of schools in September. As a result, the government’s plan for reopening was cobbled together with no input from frontline educators or the unions that represent them.
Not surprisingly—for educators, students and parents alike—the final few weeks of the summer were steeped in confusion and frustration as school boards tried to figure out how to implement a plan that was both short on details and woefully inadequate when it comes to the resources needed to create safe learning environments.
That need to create safe learning environments, for both educators and students in every school in the province, has been OSSTF/FEESO’s primary focus throughout the spring and summer of 2020. When it became clear that the Ford government’s reopening plan would fail to ensure safe classrooms, OSSTF/FEESO, along with the other education affiliates, sought a meeting with the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development. At that meeting, which was held on August 24, the unions asked the Minister to lay out clear health and safety standards for the province’s schools. Specifically, the unions asked that standards be put in place to:
- Limit class sizes to 15 to 20 students, to facilitate physical distancing
- Limit cohort maximums to a maximum of 50, and to include staff as well as students in that number
- Adhere to standards set out by the Public Services Health and Safety Association for student transportation during COVID-19
- Adhere to ventilation standards that had been recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers for the reopening of schools
- Institute a monthly review of all Ministry orders to ensure compliance with the best science available at the time
When it became clear that the Minister of Labour had no intention of putting such standards in place, OSSTF/FEESO and the other education unions filed appeals with Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), arguing that the Ministry of Education’s “Guide to reopening Ontario’s schools” does not take every reasonable precaution to protect workers, as required by Section 25(2)(h) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The OLRB has scheduled hearings throughout September and early October to consider the unions’ arguments.
Meanwhile, Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce have gone out of their way to paint OSSTF/FEESO and the other education affiliates as “obstructionist”, as if unions were the only voices decrying the inadequacy of the government’s plan. It would indeed be convenient for Ford and Lecce to be able to shift the blame to education unions for the chaotic reopening of schools in the province, but the truth is that a number of other credible voices—from the Ontario Principals’ Council to public health experts at the Hospital for Sick Children to the Ontario Medical Association—have all voiced serious concerns about the government’s plan. Added to all of those voices are a wide range of parents’ groups and social coalitions whose stated concerns echo our own.
OSSTF/FEESO will not be deterred—especially not by bogus accusations on the part of Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce—from advocating for safe learning environments in Ontario’s schools. The Federation has moved forward with its appeal to the OLRB, and will continue, by whatever means possible, to try to convince the Ford government to do the right thing and provide adequate resources to create safe learning environments. In the meantime, OSSTF/FEESO will work with every Bargaining Unit in the province to address specific health and safety concerns whenever they arise.
Ontarians understand that when educators and students are at risk, so are the communities in which they live and the families they go home to at the end of every day. Safe learning environments, on the other hand, will help to ensure the safety of entire communities. That has been the Federation’s focus from the onset of the pandemic, and it will continue to be the focus as the new school year unfolds.