A union representing thousands of elementary school teachers is slamming the Ford government for announcing a return to in-person learning without taking the steps to ensure that classrooms will be safe.

But Health Minister Christine Elliott is insisting that her government “is taking every step” it “possibly can” to make sure schools are safe, including the prioritization of educational workers for vaccines and the distribution of millions of N95 and three-ply masks for use in the classroom.

Ontario officials confirmed on Monday night that schools would resume in-person learning as of Jan. 17, despite a steady increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions.

The news was welcomed by some parents who are eager to see their children return to the classroom, however in interview with CP24 on Tuesday morning Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) President Karen Brown slammed the government for moving forward with a resumption of in-person learning during a time in which COVID-19 continues to spread widely and access to testing for school-aged children and educational staff is limited.

“We want as much as the parents do to return to in-person learning but we need to return to safe classrooms and that hasn’t been guaranteed,” she said. “What has the government done to ensure there is not interrupted learning? What are they doing about the staffing shortages?”

The Ford government has committed to provide all education workers with N95 masks prior to the resumption of classes and on Tuesday a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education confirmed that 9.1 million of the higher grade masks have already been shipped to boards. 

They also moved to send an additional 3,000 high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to schools, amounting to 0.62 additional filters per public school.

But at the same time access to take-home PCR testing has been significantly curtailed so that only students and educational staff who become symptomatic while at school will be eligible.

The government has also cut the isolation time in half for students and staff who are under 12 or fully vaccinated, allowing them to return to the classroom five days after developing symptoms when they could still be infectious.

“Our members are feeling absolutely disrespected by the premier,” Brown told CP24 on Tuesday. “For us as a federation to be finding out on social media about returning to in-person learning is really disrespectful to our members. They have been on the front line of this pandemic and we have had no consultation. We understand the government was going to review and have a look at what was happening and see what has changed but as far as I understand our numbers continue to increase, we are seeing a rise in young people being admitted to the hospitals and we are still waiting for HEPA filters across this province.”

Plan to reopen schools follows open letter from pediatric groups

The plan to resume in-person learning following two weeks of remote instruction comes on the heels of the Canadian Paediatric Society, the Pediatrics Section of the Ontario Medical Association and the Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario all writing an open letter to Ford urging him to reopen schools.

During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Elliott was asked what specifically changed over the last two weeks to allow for a safe return to school on Jan. 17 when COVID-19 will still be spreading widely.

“One thing that we did need was extra time in order to be able to have the teachers be able to come in for their second dose and booster doses as well, we also needed to get the rapid tests from the federal government and they are just starting to come in now,” she said. “We also received millions more in masks, the N95 that are going into the schools for teachers and the three-ply masks for students as well. So we just needed a bit more time to get all those provisions in place and measures in place so parents’ concerns can be relieved somewhat.”

Elliott said that her government is doing “everything it can” to allow for a resumption of in-person learning, including inspections at Ontario’s approximately 4,800 public schools “to make sure they have the necessary precautions in place.”

But in an earlier interview with CP24, infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch said that by returning students to classrooms during a time of widespread transmission the government is essentially picking the “the least bad path” and hoping that requiring parents to screen their children for symptoms will keep students from attending school while infectious.

“Self screening tools are far from perfect. It's something, it’s not nothing. It's close to nothing, but it's not nothing,” Bogoch said.

Meanwhile, during a press conference at Queen’s Park later on Tuesday afternoon NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the Ford government of failing to do “the heavy lifting” to ensure schools are safe before resuming in-person learning.

“I can tell you that I certainly got the feeling that they were just making stuff up and the minister was just making stuff up as she went along,” she said. “I think there could have been much, much more done to make the schools safer and certainly the way that the minister responded didn’t provide much confidence at all that the government bothered to do the heavy lifting to make schools safer and the kids are the ones that are paying the price for that, kids and their parents who are worried about their safety come Monday.”