The Ontario Opposition NDP leader is renewing the call for more funding to make schools safer in the fight against COVID-19 in the lead-up to spring break.
A year into the pandemic, Andrea Horwath says classrooms and school buses are still crowded and physical distancing is impossible due to class sizes.
As the province gets ready for spring break next week and as some school boards in the greater Toronto region have temporally closed due to COVID-19, Horwath is calling on the Progressive Conservatives to make the necessary changes needed to keep students and teachers safe.
She and other NDP MPPs have said front-line works like teachers and educational assistants need to be prioritized for vaccines during the break.
“From the get-go, this premier has not wanted to spend the money to put in place the necessary measures to keep our schools safe,” Horwath said.
Following Horwath’s comments, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that during the April break, education workers who provide direct daily support to students with special education needs and those in high-risk neighbourhoods in Toronto and Peel would be eligible to get vaccinated.
Ford said eligibility would expand to other high-risk areas as supply grows.
On average, one in every four schools in Ontario has at least one active case of COVID-19, Horwath said.
In the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) there are 26 schools with at least one active case of COVID-19 and the London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) has five schools with active cases. Two schools, one in each school board have temporarily closed due to COVID-19 cases.
“While we do have cases diagnosed in elementary and secondary schools very few of those cases have been acquired in school or resulted in any further spread,” said Dr. Chris Mackie London medical officer of health said during Tuesday’s media briefing.
Between the TVDSB and LDCSB, there are a combined 47 cases, most of which have happened within the last few weeks.
“The frustration that has continued throughout this year is the constant word-salad we heard from our minister of education with promises of enhanced safety protocols and they are not happening,” said Scott Hardie, vice-president of the Thames Valley chapter of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
“In Thames Valley very little has been done to address class sizes,” he said.
In February, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that $381 million in targeted funding would be allocated for health and safety measures in schools, including personal protective equipment (PPE), improving air quality and ventilation in schools, staffing, summer programs and $10 million in funding for mental health support for students.
Hardie said things like decreasing class sizes, providing better masks to students and filters to improve air quality are not happening in the Thames Valley because no money has been put towards them.
“The answers are there, the ability is there and we are in an emergency situation.”
Hardie, who is a parent as well, said he and his wife decided to do online learning this year because his daughter’s class was going to be 31 students with desks only 20 centimetres apart.
He said there have been some success stories this year but is crediting that to the teachers for their dedication to making the best of the situation they have been given.
Hardie said the system is strained with not enough supply teachers to fill in every time a teacher has to quarantine or is off because of COVID-19.
Parent of two Ryan Taylor was also at the media conference Wednesday and spoke about the need to support teachers with vaccines so that in-person classes can continue.
Taylor’s children both have autism and need to be in class to learn.
“Everybody who has a special needs child knows parenting a child with special needs is different from educating them,” he said.
Taylor said it has been detrimental to his two children having to go between online learning and in-person, adding that they can only get the support they need to learn in person.
“Developmentally, they probably have not progressed as much as they could, but everyone is in the same boat,” he said.
“With all of the disruptions to the education system, with the lockdown and switching back and forth between virtual and in-person learning, we need to re-establish stability in the system; it’s chaos right now for parents at home,” said Taylor.
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