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Government plan will leave elementary students at risk - August 7, 2020

With the government’s plan for return to school in September, it is clear that restaurants, grocery stores and gyms will have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools.

It is also painfully clear that neither Premier Ford nor Education Minister Stephen Lecce have any sense of what a day in a classroom looks like in Ontario.

If they did, they would know that with a packed classroom of 24, or in some cases more than 30 students, it is impossible to ensure physical distancing. The premier is also oblivious to the realities of a kindergarten classroom. There may be two educators in the room but there are still upwards to 30 children in a confined space. That’s concerning. These students don’t sit in rows; they are engaged in learning through play. They are more active and have less self-regulation than older students.

It’s not uncommon that COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred involving young children. In Jaffa, Israel, 33 elementary students and five staff were infected, as were nine of 11 classmates in a Trois-Rivières elementary school. Outbreaks at two child care centres in Toronto and Montreal forced temporary closures in late spring.

The Ford government is being disingenuous when it says its plan is based on recommendations from the Sick Kids Hospital Report on Return to School. The report’s authors specifically called for smaller class sizes so that physical distancing can be maintained.

Two-metre physical distancing and mask wearing have been required for indoor activities across the province. Why not in the classroom? We know that COVID-19 does not distinguish between a grocery store and a classroom, between a coffee shop and school hallways.

The fact that students in kindergarten to Grade 3 are not being required to wear masks is also troubling, since the scientific evidence regarding young children and transmission is still evolving. Even the Sick Kids Hospital Report authors could not come to consensus on the mask issue for children younger than 10 years old. Given that school boards have a duty to take every reasonable measure to protect the safety of students and staff, why would we not practice caution? All students should be required to wear masks to protect their safety and the safety of the entire school community.

That is why the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has sent a letter to those municipalities with bylaws mandating the use of masks within indoor spaces requesting that schools be included.

The Ontario government needs to stop, rethink its severely flawed plan and put the necessary funding in place to ensure the safety and health of students, educators and staff. That includes sufficient funding for smaller classes, improved building ventilation to comply with recommended standards, rental of additional classroom space if needed and the hiring of more educators to provide instruction to both smaller classes and to those students whose parents have elected to have them participate in distance learning. 

Ontarians don’t need a government that gambles on the safety of students, staff, parents and their communities. The Ford government needs to listen to parents and educators and stop trying to cut costs on a safe return to school. We need a government that will safeguard the health of children and educators as they return to school this fall.

Sam Hammond is the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.