Teachers’ unions to file labour board complaint over school reopening plan
Groups allege plan does not take 'every reasonable precaution' to protect workers
By Shawn Jeffords
TORONTO — An escalating conflict between Premier Doug Ford’s government and four major teachers’ unions is headed to the province’s labour board as the unions allege Ontario’s school reopening plan violates its own workplace safety laws.
The unions — which represent 190,000 teachers and education workers — said Monday morning that they all plan to file complaints after meetings with Ontario government failed to address their concerns last week.
The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation all allege the school reopening plan does not take “every reasonable precaution” to protect workers from COVID-19.
“No worker in the province of Ontario should be expected to sacrifice their health and safety, especially when there are such obvious measures the government could be taking to reduce the risk and prevent potential tragedies,” OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said in a statement.
With just weeks to go before classes start, the Ford government has faced increasing pressure over its COVID-19 pandemic back-to-school plan.
The province’s strategy will see students in kindergarten through Grade 8 return to school without any reduction in class sizes, though students will spend the day in a single cohort to limit contact with other children.
Most high schoolers will also be in class full-time, though students at some boards across the province will take half their courses online in a bid to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Teachers’ unions, school boards, and some parents say the province must lower elementary class sizes and fund the reduction, instead of insisting boards dip into their own reserve funds to lease extra space or hire additional staff to promote physical distancing.
Push for workplace orders
Last week, the teachers’ unions had asked the Ministry of Labour to issue a series of workplace orders to set safety standards in schools, setting a Friday deadline for the government.
The unions said the Labour Ministry — which oversees workplaces in the province — should order standards which mandate 15 to 20 students per class, to ensure a two-metre distance can be maintained between pupils.
They said an order establishing a maximum cohort of 50 students should be set and along with busing standards which take precautions against COVID-19.
“Smaller class sizes would help make schools safer,” ETFO president Sam Hammond said in a statement. “Should teachers and education workers not be able to expect at least the same standards and precautionary measures as have been put in place in stores, offices, and other spaces across the province?”
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday, but a spokesman for the labour ministry said last week that inspectors are currently working with safety staff and Joint Health and Safety Committee co-chairs at school boards across Ontario.
The Ontario government has had a rocky relationship with the province’s teachers’ unions since taking office in 2018.
Earlier this year, the government concluded a contentious round of contract talks with the unions after months of teacher walk outs that led to days-long school closures.
Ford pleas for partnership
Ford has repeatedly criticized the unions in recent weeks, appealing to them to work with the province on the return to school.
Earlier this month, he defended his plan saying it’s been approved by experts including the province’s chief medical officer of health.
“I’m always going to listen to the doctors,” he said. “I’m not going to listen to the head of the unions that are playing politics.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party is asking businesses to treat education workers as front-line workers.
Steven Del Duca said retailers and institutions have made life easier for front-line workers during the pandemic.
He said he would like to see teachers, caretakers, bus drivers, principals and support staff have special shopping hours, discounts on products and services, and increased childcare.
Del Duca said they’ll soon be on the front lines of recovery and can use the help others are now receiving.
Ontario reported 114 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and one new death related to the coronavirus. There were also 73 cases newly marked as resolved in the report.
The total number of cases in Ontario is 42,309, which included 2,811 deaths and 38,277 cases marked as resolved.