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Follow-up letter to Public Health Units on In-Person Learning

In this letter to Ontario’s Public Health Units, ETFO President Sam Hammond asks them to use their authority to fill the gaps in leadership left by the provincial government.

Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario

Fédération des enseignantes et des enseignants de l'élémentaire de l'Ontario

136 Isabella St

Toronto, ON M4Y 0B5

Telephone: 416-962-3836 Tollfree: 1-888-838-3836

Fax: 416-642-2424

etfo.ca

January 19, 2021

Medical Officers of Health
Ontario Public Health Units

Dear Medical Officers of Health:

On behalf of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and our 83,000 members, I want to thank you for your continued dedication to protecting the lives of people across Ontario. We know that you, alongside the staff in public health units across the province, have been working under incredible pressure and often without sufficient resources to keep Ontarians safe.

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed our health care system to the verge of collapse. Many hospitals across the province are beyond capacity and ICU occupancy by COVID-19 patients significantly surpass that seen during the first wave. Last week alone, Ontarians lost more than 400 people to the virus. Many of these deaths were preventable, had the government implemented the necessary measures when requested by medical and public health professionals.

On January 6, I wrote to you requesting that you use your authority to reconsider the decision to resume in-person learning for elementary students on January 11, particularly in communities where the rate of community transmission is high and where other extreme public health measures have been deemed necessary.

Since then, the government delayed the restart of in-person learning across Southern Ontario, while it decided to resume it in Northern Ontario. In addition, some special education programs continue to operate in-person in schools across the province, including in areas currently under lock-down.

We have asked the government to implement additional safety measures prior to resuming in-person learning in those communities currently under lock-down and have also asked for immediate implementation of these measures where in-person learning is currently taking place.

In addition, we have requested that educators and other school-based staff required for in-person special education programs to be prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The government appears to be considering some of the safety measures recommended by medical and public health experts, and which ETFO has long advocated for, such as increasing access to school-based asymptomatic testing. The government has also partially implemented other measures such as extending mandatory masks to students in grades 1-3, leaving however Kindergarten students exempt from mandatory masks. Despite this progress, the government has fallen short, once again, in ensuring the health and safety of students and educators.

Among the requests that the government has yet to address are the ongoing call to reduce class sizes to allow for appropriate physical distancing, mandating masks for all students –including Kindergarten, improvements to ventilation, deploying CO2 monitors in all classrooms, providing portable air filtration units for classrooms, and implementing school-based asymptomatic testing across the province –not only in a few targeted areas.

The government has also refused widespread calls for the implementation of paid sick leave for all workers across the province, to ensure that workers can afford to take time off work when needed.

On behalf of educators across the province, I once again ask you to use your authority to fill the gaps in leadership left by the provincial government. I ask that you consider whether it is appropriate for in-person learning to continue or resume in the communities you are responsible for, based on the current local pandemic-related data, and that you publicly communicate the metrics that those decisions are based on.

I also ask that you use your authority to require that school boards across the province perform risk assessments for every classroom where students are learning in-person. These risk assessments should be conducted in consultation with Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSC) and consider the consider the suitability of the space, the quality of ventilation, the need for physical barriers such as plexiglass, etc. School boards should also be required to immediately implement enhanced safety measures, including the following:

  • Smaller class sizes.
  • Mandatory masks for all students (including Kindergarten).
  • Improved ventilation in all classrooms.
  • Portable air purification units in all classrooms.
  • CO2 monitors in all classrooms.
  • Higher grade PPE (such as, but not limited to level 3 masks, medical grade goggles, medical grade gowns) for all educators working in person in special education classrooms.
  • Requiring that evidence of completion of a COVID-19 screener for every child learning in-person be presented to the school personnel upon morning entry or prior to boarding school buses.
  • Enhanced and more frequent cleaning protocols.

I want to reiterate our previous request that you implement asymptomatic surveillance testing in schools across the province and ask that local COVID-19 taskforces be created in partnership with school boards, Public Health Units and worker representatives.

I know that we are asking more from you, at a time when Public Health Units are already struggling to keep up with the increased demands resulting from the second wave of the pandemic. However, it has become increasingly clear that Ontarians cannot rely on the current provincial government to implement the necessary measures to keep everyone safe.

We will continue to demand that the provincial government provide much-needed supports to families, especially during periods when schools are closed to in-person attendance. We will also continue our advocacy to ensure that the government acknowledges and addresses the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on marginalized communities, in particular racialized and low-income families.

Once again, thank you for all your work, and for shouldering the responsibility to keep Ontarians safe. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

[Original Signed]

Sam Hammond,
President
Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario

SH:FC:MG
Copy: Directors of Education, Ontario Public School Boards

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