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Ontario teachers and parents have expressed concerns about the safety and feasibility of the province’s return-to-school plan time and time again, and now one educator has written an open letter outlining the exact issues with the plan and what needs to change to truly ensure the health and safety of both students and staff come September.
Kate Conway is both a teacher and a parent of a young child who was set to begin Junior Kindergarten this year. She’s been on been on parental leave since December 2019 and was due to return to work this fall, but has chosen to continue parental leave until December 2020 because of safety concerns.
“I do not have pre-existing health conditions nor do my immediate family members,” she wrote. “Despite this, I feel the return-to-school plan as it is materializing does not meet the safety needs of students or staff and I am unwilling to be a guinea pig, or to allow my 4 year old son to be a guinea pig.”
[x] Worrying about the lack of funding from the Ministry of Education for a safe return to school. https://t.co/BwGcQUHDIF
— Ontario Dad (@ONT_Dad) July 28, 2020
In the letter, Conway goes on to acknowledge that she understands that many parents want a full-time return-to-school model, but she feels the province has not properly communicated exactly how this will work.
She says a UCDSB survey distributed to parents offered vague suggestions of what measures can be taken to ensure safety, such as frequent hand-washing and increased cleaning of shared spaces, but without details on how they can actually be realistically implemented.
“I am worried that parents are assuming a ‘full-time return to school’ will be a SAFE full-time return to school,” she wrote.
“Parents have asked for a full-time return to school. The Ministry of Education and Boards have alluded to the notion that such an option is feasible. Only teachers know the realities in a classroom.”
She then proceeds to outline the exact details of what full-time school would look like under the province’s guidelines amid a pandemic, explaining that there are currently two possible scenarios for class sizes.
“In Scenario 1, Boards are leaning toward full class sizes. We will work with 20 students as our basis, though most classes are usually larger. In Scenario 2, a cohort approach is used, so we’ll base our numbers on 15 students,” she wrote.
According to Conway, in order to ensure frequent hand-washing is maintained, students would have to spend anywhere from 135 to 180 minutes per class, per day on this activity if every student were to follow proper protocols.
Factors like lineups, transition times between students, teacher supervision and physical distancing in line are just some of the factors she cites as being potentially problematic and overly time-consuming.
As a secondary school teacher, should my back-to-school plans have to include writing my will? Students and teachers need Ontario to fund a #SafeSeptember @fordnation @Sflecce
— Darryl Newbury (@darryljgn) July 28, 2020
Next, she addresses the idea of increased cleaning of shared spaces.
Conway explains that she has routinely had issues with cleaning and sanitation under normal circumstances, as schools are often lacking the resources and equipment to ensure cleanliness is properly maintained.
“As a teacher, I have regularly had to search the building for paper towels, hand soap, tissues, and cleaning supplies because my classroom has run out and the custodian is busy with other important tasks. Students have approached me regularly to inform me the bathroom has no soap or that stalls are without toilet paper,” she wrote.
“I have become frustrated with the lack of resources and outfitted my own class with supplies, including a vacuum. I am by no means the exception – this is something that many teachers experience and have done.”
If custodians were so overworked before the pandemic, she asks, how can we expect them to keep up with hygiene demands now?
She also points out that a checklist provided by the province states that teachers and students are expected to partake in the cleaning shared spaces.
“Teachers and students are not infection control specialists. Students are not WHMIS trained. Also, we cannot maintain physical distance if we are cleaning our classroom together. Nor will we have much time because we’ve already spent 3 hours of our day washing our hands,” she wrote.
The third requirement for return-to-school is physical distancing, and Conway quickly explains that she knows of very few classrooms big enough to allow for each student and teacher to maintain a distance of six feet from everyone around them.
She adds that an inability to physical distance at all times is fine as long as PPE is used instead, but most public health authorities have stated that masking won’t be required in schools and that schools are exempt from the indoor mask requirement in many jurisdictions.
“You will need a mask to get a haircut — but not if you are standing in a classroom in September, for eight hours a day, teaching twenty potentially infectious children.”The inanity of the Ontario govt’s plan to reopen schools without PPE is astounding and terrifying. @Sflecce https://t.co/cqd7CvNPpq
— Russell Gordon (@rgordon) July 28, 2020
“School ventilation systems are outdated. Many do not have A/C and some classrooms are windowless or have windows that will not open. Any potential mitigation teachers may wish to do to offset the limitations on physical distancing are quashed by these numerous issues,” she said.
“Many teachers do not feel safe returning to the classroom with these issues looming. A clear indication that these variables have been considered and are being realistically addressed is needed. Parents are torn between sending their children to school and keeping them home, which, for many, means a loss of income.”
Conway says the province must provide more funding in order to ensure the safest possible return to school so that school boards can secure additional classroom space, guarantee smaller cohort sizes, hire additional custodial staff, update HVAC systems before September, and hire enough teachers to facilitate additional classes due to smaller cohorts and to facilitate the virtual learning option.
She also says schools need board-issued PPE, barriers, and cleaning supplies, and occasional teachers need paid sick leave.
Every decision the Ford government makes about community re-opening must prioritize #SafeSeptember. We have a collective responsibility to our kids to get this right. pic.twitter.com/q8gTXPVeU6
— Ontario Parent Action Network (@parentaction4ed) July 28, 2020
Meanwhile, families, education workers, and concerned community members are set to visit 122 MPP offices across Ontario tomorrow to demand full funding and real solutions to ensure a safe and equitable return to school.
“We know from the costing report released by the TDSB that the funding needed for a safe and equitable full-time return is more than $8/day per child, a far cry from the 7 cents/day that the government has allotted,” said Rachel Huot of the Ontario Parent Action Network in a statement.
“We reject this austerity framework that will lead to inferior learning and unsafe conditions for children and staff. We need our government to step up and properly confront the largest public health and education crisis of our time.”