The head of the union representing public elementary school teachers in the province says he does not understand why the Ford government plans to send students and teachers back to the classroom when Ontario remains under lockdown.
Students in both elementary and high schools around the province returned to class on Monday but all learning has been moved to a virtual platform during the first week back.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce confirmed over the weekend that the province is still moving ahead with plans to send elementary school students back to the classroom on Jan. 11. Secondary schools students in northern Ontario will also resume in-person learning on Jan. 11 but high school students in southern parts of the province will have to wait until Jan. 25.
The provincially mandated Ontario-wide lockdown, which was implemented on Boxing Day, is set to end for regions in northern Ontario on Jan. 9 and southern regions on Jan. 23.
"We are having a really difficult time understanding why this government would send educators and education staff back to school in the middle of a pandemic when they have locked down the province for another two to three weeks," Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), told CP24 on Monday.
"It is a very difficult situation but we firmly believe that we should be out until the end of this lockdown at least."
Ontario logged nearly 3,300 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and the seven-day average of new infections has jumped to 2,982, up from 2,186 last week.
With just over 39,000 tests completed over a 24-hour period, Ontario saw a provincewide test positivity rate of 9.7 per cent, a tie for the highest positivity rate reported during the second wave of the pandemic.
In a letter released on Sunday, Lecce reiterated his assertion that schools are not a significant source of transmission.
“We believe so strongly that schools are essential to the well-being, mental health and development of a child, and therefore, must be safeguarded at all costs to ensure they can remain open for safe in-class instruction,” Lecce's letter read.
“I want to reassure parents that according to the province’s leading doctors, our schools are safe, with eight out of 10 schools in this province having no cases of COVID-19 and based on board reporting, 99.64 per cent of students have not reported a case of COVID-19.”
Hammond accused the education minister of "downplaying" the transmission in schools and "refusing to provide additional funds for safety measures."
He said there has simply not been enough testing at schools to know how the virus is being transmitted in the classroom.
"Asymptomatic testing should have started in September in every school in every hot spot in this province because what we have seen is in 100 per cent of the schools where they have done asymptomatic testing, they have had to shut down those schools," Hammond said.
In November, the province introduced a four-week pilot project to increase asymptomatic testing in schools in areas of the province with high rates of COVID-19. Surveillance testing was originally promised in the school reopening plan released in August but inexplicably did not start for months.
The pilot has unearthed many previously undetected cases in Ontario schools, including dozens at a Thorncliffe Park elementary school.
"We firmly believe that if they did comprehensive testing, asymptomatic testing, they'd find a completely different result in terms of transmission of COVID-19 in schools."
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and professor at the University of Toronto, said he does not believe schools are the problem.
"I think the consensus is schools are not feeding that, schools are reflecting what's going on in the community. There have been some schools outbreaks but the fact of the matter is, if schools were really driving infections, there would have been outbreaks at all schools and there really haven't been," he added.
"The problem actually has to do with contact and travel and what people are doing in their off times. And kids' interactions when they are not in school. I can think way less safe places for a child to be than at a desk with a mask on."
Both Hammond and Harvey Bischof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), have also been critical of the province's handling of the switch to virtual learning.
Bischof said teachers were told at the "last-minute" about moving to virtual learning, leaving educators scrambling to adapt their lesson plans during what should have been their holiday break.
Hammond said the province should have put more money and resources into helping teachers transition to remote learning.
"Instead what they government did, what the minister did was simply the first day into the winter break said we are going to go to virtual learning as of Day 1," Hammond said. "No transition time, no additional supports."