Ontario’s four largest education sector unions are slamming government’s return to school plan, calling it “incomplete and inadequate.”

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) released a joint statement on Wednesday afternoon in which they took the government to task for attempting to “create the illusion of normalcy” when “we are still in a pandemic.”

The unions say that their members want to see children back in the classroom in the fall but they claim that the back to school claim wrongly loosens some public health measures while ignoring “the need for ongoing funding to ensure a safe and sustainable return to school.”

“Entire sections of the guidance document are missing at a time when some students are already back in class and others will be returning within four to five weeks, including a plan to manage COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, learning recovery and renewal supports and resources, and a comprehensive plan to support student mental health and well-being,” they say in the statement.” The government continues to download its responsibility to school boards and local public health agencies without providing adequate direction, time or funding.”

The Ford government back to school plan, which was detailed in a 26-page document sent to boards on Tuesday, resembles a more fulsome return to normal with assemblies, field trips, extracurricular activities and inter-school sports all set to return.

It also lifts some protective measures, such as on-site screening.

“By releasing an incomplete and inadequate plan, instead of assuring families, staff and students that schools will be safe, the Ford government has attempted to create the illusion of normalcy,” the unions say in their statement. “We are still in a pandemic, with the potential of a fourth wave driven by the Delta variant.”

Rules will be the same for vaccinated and unvaccinated students

The criticism from all four of Ontario’s major education sector unions comes hours after a press conference in which Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore suggested that unvaccinated students will not be prohibited from taking part in things like extra-curricular activities and will be able to do all the same things as their vaccinated peers.

Speaking to reporters at the news conference on Wednesday morning, Moore said the government is still finalizing outbreak management protocols for schools this fall but noted that there likely will not be a different approach for students who are vaccinated and those who aren’t.

Only students who are 12 and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as all currently approved vaccines are not federally cleared for use in younger children. About one third of students between the ages of 12 and 17 have not yet received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and just under half of children in that age group are fully vaccinated.

“I do not anticipate any difference (in) approach, whether a child's vaccinated or unvaccinated, on any activities within the school setting. We would not be knowledgeable of their immune status,” he said.

“There shouldn't be any barriers or stigmatization of children who have not received the vaccine in any way in normal activities throughout the school year.”

Last week, Moore told reporters that students who have been exposed to COVID-19 would follow different sets of rules based on their vaccination status during the course of outbreak management.

“If you are two-dose vaccinated plus 14 days we will offer you a test if you've been a contact of a high-risk person. So someone that's had ongoing fever and cough or increasing shortness of breath and if you test negative you can go right back to school, you can go right back to work, so there is a terrific advantage of being two-dose immunized by being able to stay in school and attend sports and participate fully in all the social activities of the school setting,” he said during a news conference last week.

“If you are not immunized and you've been in contact with the high-risk contact, you'll be off for a minimum of 10 days and you will have to get two tests, one initially and then another around day seven. If that test day seven is positive, you're off for another 10 days so you can see that there's a potential for up to 20 days off from school because you weren't immunized.”

But this information was not referenced anywhere in the Ford government’s 29 page back-to-school plan, which was released to the public on Tuesday.

“It's normal that we have a release of a plan for the reopening of the schools and we would follow up with outbreak management protocols that would be shared with our local public health agencies,” Moore said Wednesday.

“We're working diligently on them to finalize them. We again are getting input from the science table, our pediatric hospitals, Public Health Ontario and our local public health agencies.”

As part of the province’s school reopening plan, elementary and secondary school students can return to the classroom five days a week come September.

On Wednesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that the provincial government would be offering up an additional $25 million in funding to further improve ventilation in schools ahead of the fall reopening.

The province has vowed to ensure that all occupied classrooms, gyms, libraries and other instructional spaces without mechanical ventilation will have standalone high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units by the time kids return.

In addition, kindergarten classrooms, where pupils will be allowed to go maskless, will have portable HEPA filtration even in schools where mechanical ventilation is already available.

“We are following the best expert advice by ensuring all schools have improved air ventilation, including deploying an additional 20,000 HEPA units, in total over 70,000 ventilation devices, to help ensure schools remain as safe as possible,” Lecce said in a news release issued Wednesday.

“With the work we have done, I am confident we will keep students and staff safe in our schools as we reopen for the 2021-22 school year.”

However some boards are already indicating that they will take a more cautious approach.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said Wednesday evening that it will continue to require the use of facemasks by all students in junior and senior kindergarten (JK and SK) classrooms this year.

“The TDSB will continue to work with Toronto Public Health and with employee groups to develop specific operational plans for TDSB,” the board said in a letter sent to parents and guardians.

Speaking to CP24 on Wednesday afternoon, Ontario NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the Ford government is taking half measures when it comes to protecting students in the classroom and during extra-curricular activities.

"I think what is missing in the plan is that emphasis on things that will actually ensure those activities are safe, like smaller class sizes... they're not really putting the investment in that would be necessary to make it work," she said.

"We all hope that this school year goes really well but we have to be honest and acknowledge that a lot of our students are not even eligible for vaccines yet because they're little and it's those little kids we really need to be concerned about."