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York Region’s unions say Ford’s plan on schools ‘incomplete,’ but Kurji says it's 'sensible'

The plan 'downloaded much of the work to be done on local school boards'
Aug. 6, 2021
Dina Al-Shibeeb

York Region's top doctor, Karim Kurji, on Aug. 4 welcomed Ford's government plan on schools reopening, in addition to the $25 million slated to provide 20,000 air filters to improve ventilation in schools provincewide that need improvement.

“I am pleased to see the Ontario government’s guide to reopening schools. It is cautious and sensible,” Dr. Kurji said from St. Robert Catholic High School in Thornhill alongside Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

However, with students in Ontario having been out of the classroom longer than students in any other province, Ford’s government plan on the safe return to schools, released Aug. 3, isn’t sitting well with York Region’s unions.

“It’s hard to call anything that excludes protocols for testing, tracing and quarantining a ‘plan’ for a safe return to school,” Muna Kadri, president of District 16 Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said.

As of Aug. 2, about 81.4 per cent of those aged 12 and older in York Region have had one dose of vaccine, and 72.6 per cent have two doses so far.

“High school students at the YRDSB are returning to full classes of over 30 students, a common lunch where hundreds of students will be eating in the same location and a hybrid model that makes them share a teacher’s attention with peers online,” Kadri said, echoing a sentiment shared by teachers.

“After over a year of asking students to make sacrifices, (Education) Minister Lecce needed to prioritize a safe return to school, student learning and mental health, but he didn’t.”

Mike Totten, president of York Region's local unit of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), explained how return to schools “must be done safely for it to be sustainable.”

“The Ford government’s back-to-school plan is incomplete,” Totten said. “It is based on a wait-and-see premise that we know from the previous school year only leads to massive confusion and disruption, negatively impacting student learning and mental health,” he added.

Ontario's top doctor, Dr. Kieran Moore, who said that students aged 12 to 17 who aren't vaccinated against COVID-19 will face stricter isolation rules in case of virus outbreaks, previously alluded that the details about public health measures are still being finalized.

For Totten, who emphasized learning in-person and “experiencing the benefits of what that opportunity has to offer,” such as socialization with friends, the plan, however, has “downloaded much of the work to be done on local school boards.”

Like Kadri, Totten urged the government for smaller class sizes to allow physical distancing, robust tracing and testing, adding how there ought to be a “clear threshold for when a classroom or school is closed.”

“Vaccinations are an important part of the plan, and increased vaccine education and awareness must be a part of the government’s plan.”

He also said that there should be masking for all staff and students, an end to the “failed hybrid model” and proper COVID-19 outbreak management.

In a public statement, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) President Sam Hammond also criticized the plan.

“What they seem to have forgotten is that Ontarians remain at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, and most elementary children are ineligible for vaccines.”

Reiterating similar requests as Kadri and Totten, Hammond called on the government to “immediately reverse its $800-million funding cut to public education for the 2021--2022 school year.”

Days before the announcement, Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario shared its open letter to Premiere Doug Ford on July 28, saying that despite “promising” vaccination rates across the province, “the reality is schools will house the largest group of unvaccinated people in congregate settings come the fall.”

For RNAO, it has taken too long for aerosol transmission of COVID-19 to be recognized, emphasizing the need for proper ventilation.