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The health and ventilation experts Ontario’s education unions wanted to bring in front of a labour board to explain the dangers of the Ford government’s back-to-school plan never got that chance.
So the unions instead had them lay out those arguments to reporters on Wednesday, saying their recommendations would help avoid large-scale school shutdowns and limit the spread of COVID-19 between in-person classes and the wider community.
“Having kids crowded together can be a spur to disease transmission for the community as a whole, and that’s why we are raising our voices about the importance of improved ventilation, decreased class sizes, mask-wearing for all kids and the importance of cohorts,” said Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
There have been more than 700 COVID-19 cases reported at Ontario schools since they reopened last month, including 111 recorded on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the daily addition of new cases overall in Ontario has ranged between around 500 and 700-plus in recent weeks, with most cases occurring in the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa.
“Based on the available scientific evidence, and in light of increased community transmission, it’s critical to reduce school class sizes and school cohort sizes for students and education workers,” said Dr. Amy Greer, a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in population disease modelling at the University of Guelph.
TDSB sends more teachers from classrooms to virtual school
But with tens of thousands of students in the Toronto District School Board opting to learn from home, the country’s largest school board informed parents late on Tuesday that some 570 elementary teachers will be moved out of classrooms to bulk up its virtual school.
That will mean combining some in-person classes into larger groups as the TDSB’s virtual school prepares to add around 3,000 more students following a deadline last week for them to transfer between the two learning options.
Fisman, who is advising the government on its COVID-19 modelling, said a belief that children younger than 10 are unlikely to get infected or pass the virus to others “is likely wrong” and that masks should be worn in every Ontario classroom from junior kindergarten on, rather than from Grade 3 as current provincial rules state.
Jeff Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, said that in addition to wearing masks and keeping apart, students and education workers also need well-ventilated spaces to limit COVID-19 spread.
“We have to identify and correct the environments that are poorly ventilated, and then we have to add ventilation as much as we can in those spaces, and use central and portable filtration to further reduce the risk,” he said.
Health experts @AmyGreerKalisz and @DFisman and ventilation academic @IAQinGWN say Ontario's @fordnation and @Sflecce must do more to make classrooms safe. #onpoli #onted
In older schools where it may not be possible to improve ventilation, he said filtration would be more important, noting that portable filters are easily deployable and flexible, able to be targeted at individual classrooms and controlled by the teacher.
Siegel said decades of research show that better indoor air-quality ventilation helps students achieved higher grades, reduces absenteeism and even leads to higher earnings for graduates.
The four unions representing 190,000 teachers and education workers in public English-language elementary and secondary schools, Catholic schools and French-language schools across the province filed a joint complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board regarding their health and safety concerns about the back-to-school plan in late August.
The labour tribunal dismissed the complaint last week, saying it did not have the jurisdiction to consider the merits of the complaint as applied to the whole province.
The unions say that decision meant educators concerned about classroom conditions must file individual health and safety complaints.
“This mammoth task is being downloaded onto teachers and education workers at a time when they are already stretched thin,” said Susan Ursel, a lawyer at Ursel Phillips Fellows Hopkinson LLP who represented the unions in their submission to the labour relations board.
Just ahead of the unions' news conference, Education Minister Stephen Lecce released a statement thanking “all front-line workers in education” while “calling on our teacher unions to work with — not against — our efforts to deliver safe schools.”
Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, said the unions have been trying to work with the Progressive Conservative government since March.
“Each and every time we have attempted to do that, we've been shut out and shut down,” she said. “Their version of working with them is that we just agree with everything they’re bringing forward, which is just unconscionable because we know that it’s not working.”
Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer