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 the 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.
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.
Pushing for smaller class sizes
The unions said the Labour Ministry — which oversees workplaces in the province — should order standards that 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, along with busing standards that 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?”
Ford said Monday that the province is putting “every idea possible” into Ontario’s classrooms.
“If you compare the report card with all the other provinces, it’s night and day,” Ford said. “My concern is how at the peak of this, when it was running rampant, that PSWs (personal support workers) walked into long-term care homes like firefighters walking into the burning buildings, and they don’t say a word.
Ford also added that numerous teachers have come up to him personally to apologize for the behaviour of the union.
Premier defends provincial plan
A spokesperson 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.
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said Monday he could not comment on the complaints, but the government inspectors have been in contact with school boards and staff on the restart.
“My role in this process is as a neutral overseer,” he said. “I will not play politics with such an important issue.”
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 walkouts that led to days-long school closures.
Earlier this month, Ford defended his reopening plan, saying it has 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.”