TORONTO - Retired Ontario educators will be allowed to work more days this school year as the province aims to address pandemic-related staff shortages before students return to in-class learning.

The government has not yet said whether students will return to classes in-person on Jan. 17 - the soonest they might see an end to the latest period of online learning, which began this month amid unprecedented levels of COVID-19 spread driven by the Omicron variant.

A written statement Monday from Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the new agreement with the Ontario Teachers' Federations that allows retirees to be re-employed for 95 days instead of 50 will help with the eventual return to in-person school.

“We need staff in order to continue providing live teacher-led remote learning and safely operate our schools when students return to in-person learning,” Lecce's statement read. “That is why we have now secured an agreement with the Ontario Teachers' Federation that will deliver access to thousands of teacher-qualified educators that will help keep schools open and safe.”

He noted in his written comment that school boards were affected by staff shortages even before the Omicron variant drove up absence rates.

The highly infectious variant, spreading rapidly in Ontario, is impacting workforces across many sectors including health and education. Premier Doug Ford referenced the inability to staff schools as a factor behind the decision to return to remote learning when he announced the temporary move this month.

The 95-day rule allowing retired teachers, principals and vice principals to work in the public school system while drawing income from employment and their pensions will be in effect until the end of June.

The Ontario Teachers' Federation addressed the agreement in a written statement on Dec. 31 - more than a week before the government announced the change - noting that it “does not expect that many retirees are interested in working in the current environment,” but the change will allow them to work more days if they choose to do so.

The professional group representing teachers said in a subsequent statement that “more robust health and safety measures” including social distancing, regular virus testing, smaller class sizes and “appropriate masks” for both staff and students “would also encourage new graduates and existing occasional teachers to make themselves available.”

“This would strongly mitigate the need for additional retirees (average age of which is 72) to somehow fill any void, given the current environment,” the statement said.

Chris Cowley, president of the group, said in an email on Monday that around 60 out of 142,000 retired members “have expressed interest in increasing the 50-Day re-employment rule” since September.

The government said promised shipments of N95 masks were sent to all school boards and school authorities as of Monday, while some shipments to child-care centres were still to go out this week.

A spokeswoman said Lecce was not available for an interview on Monday. The minister has not spoken at a news conference since before the province announced the latest school closure on Jan. 3.

Another written statement from Lecce said the government's “priority is getting student's back to class,” and pointed to recent measures like accelerating boosters for education workers, deploying N95 masks and installing more HEPA air filter units over the last several months.

The province's written announcement on the retired teacher workforce came amid calls for greater transparency around actions taken to improve school safety.

At a news conference following a meeting of opposition politicians and health sector representatives, critics expressed concerns over rising hospitalizations from COVID-19 and the lack of data on virus cases in schools and child-care centres. The government stopped publishing that information amid skyrocketing case numbers and reduced access to virus tests.

Ontario reported 438 people in intensive care with COVID-19 as of Monday and 2,467 people hospitalized with the virus in total, though not all hospitals report those figures from the weekend. The province reported 9,706 new COVID-19 cases, but Public Health Ontario has noted that the actual number of cases is likely higher.

In addition to closing schools, the province has temporarily cancelled scheduled surgeries, ordered spaces like restaurants, gyms, theatres to close and placed capacity limits on retail stores and social gatherings in a bid to preserve hospital capacity.

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said in order to prioritize schools, the province should have brought in more closures to rein in Omicron's spread. Since that has not happened, she said reopening schools “will exacerbate the situation” in hospitals.

“It's not about the kids. It about the system and what the system can cope (with),” she said, noting that schools could have been made safer earlier in the pandemic with mandatory vaccinations for teachers and access to N95 masks.

“It's a problem that we created,” she said. “I don't think we can do it in seven days.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2022.