Windsor-Essex Virtual Open Forum
Summary of the Discussion
At the outset, it was noted that ideally the government or unions that represent those working in education would be calling such open forums for their own members and the community to ensure that there is broad input, discussion and deliberation on the plans for re-opening so everyone can work together to put forward solutions and feel empowered. However, in this case, the government has deliberately operated so as to limit public participation in any decision-making to the extent that even school board trustees who are elected to represent local constituents about their education system claim that they have no power in the situation.
It was pointed out that the government is using the idea of "choice" as to whether families send their children to school or not in order to divide the people between those who will send their children into schools and those who will not. Instead of working to ensure the schools are safe, and involving frontline educators, students and parents in deciding how to reopen, they give people the "choice" to either go into an unsafe environment or keep their children home. Not only do the most vulnerable in our society not have such a choice but it is a false choice meant to force people to choose between two untenable options. This also attacks the very notion of public education where the interests of everyone are supposed to be upheld as a whole, not divided between those with the means to do private education or home schooling and those without. This discriminates against working class families and racialized groups. Nonetheless, the point of the Open Forum was to see how we can unite ourselves to bring forward our concerns to one another and hopefully see what can be done to address them as individuals and as a collective.
A presentation was then given on the recommendations of the July 29 Updated COVID-19: Guidance for School Reopening document produced by The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Kingston Health Sciences Centre, Children's Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre, McMaster Children's Hospital and Unity Health Toronto, also known as the Sick Kids Report. The report is being used by the provincial government to justify reopening of schools the way they are, in particular with no limits on class sizes to ensure physical distancing in elementary school. The Sick Kids Report identified that the main way to stop the spread of the virus in schools is through physical distancing, with one metre minimum between children in kindergarten to Grade 8 and two metres for those in high school (Grades 9-12), as well as cohorting of students so they remain with one group. The report also identified the need for funding for trained screeners at the schools, health care providers working with the schools, additional custodian and cleaning staff and increased teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists.
The authors of the Sick Kids Report were not in agreement on mask use for school-aged children and identified PPE as the least effective measure to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in their hierarchy of measures -- the key point being that the government seems to have chosen to ignore the recommendations for physical distancing in elementary schools by instead mandating mask use for Grades 4 to 8, where the largest class sizes exist. Meanwhile, for students below Grade 4, neither is mask wearing being mandated nor is a strategy to decrease class size to make physical distancing possible being put in place. This is a fundamental flaw in the government's plan that reveals they are not following the recommendations of the Report but cherry picking what bolsters their intention to open schools without the proper investments to make them safe.
The Report also recommends that educational assistants be assigned to one room, rather than the current practice of assigning them to multiple students in multiple rooms, so as to limit contacts between cohorts of students. It was also noted that it is recommended supply teachers be assigned to one school and that a two-week waiting period be utilized if there is a need to switch supply teachers from one school to another.
Another presentation was given on the role of the local public health authority. It was noted that the local Medical Officer of Health's powers are defined by the Health and Public Protection Act and that this officer is responsible for imposing quarantine orders and other orders to protect public health. It was pointed out that there appear to be conflicting authorities for dealing with schools during a pandemic as schools come under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education despite the fact that their role with respect to communicable diseases is addressed in the Health and Public Protection Act. It was noted that the Ministry of Health also has jurisdiction and that it is important to investigate further who can do what in order to identify ways of ensuring that standards for healthy and safe schools are upheld. In this light, a local petition was highlighted that calls on the local Medical Officer of Health not to permit the opening of elementary schools until proper funding is provided to ensure that students can physically distance two metres.
Several questions and concerns were then raised by participants about the overall situation and the specific plan being put forward by the Greater Essex Public Board to trustees on August 11.
Questions, concerns and proposals of participants:
- Black and racialized communities have been more adversely affected by COVID-19. This pandemic has shone a light on the systemic inequities that exist. Many students did not have parents at home to assist them as they were working. Some students went to work in the agribusiness industry where there are outbreaks. The reopening plans are making the inequities worse and essentially take risks with specific segments of our population and treat them as guinea pigs. It is about profit over people and no one should be used as a guinea pig.
- What steps are our unions taking to ensure the safety of teachers and other staff and to ensure that collective agreements are not violated?
- What steps we can take if we are asked to do work that is clearly unsafe or if it doesn't follow the collective agreement?
- Neither masks nor physical distancing can occur in many special education classrooms and students are often in a medically fragile state. What kind of extra precautions and safety measures are being implemented for these students to guarantee their right to education, and for staff?
- The GECDSB has said the earliest date for elementary students to return to in-class learning if their parents initially opt for them to stay home and engage in online learning is February. Other school boards have more frequent windows for elementary students to return to class. Why has the GECDSB decided to prevent an earlier return for students? Students should have the option to return in November following the progress report.
- Parents should be given full information and adequate time to review the plan to decide whether to have their kids go back to school or stay online. The current plan will not even be officially released until Tuesday August 11 and families have until August 17 to decide whether to send children back in September or not. This is an unrealistic time frame and should be extended so parents can make an informed decision. Parents should be given a manual that outlines key measures to consider.
- Why was the school board's plan sent to the government before trustees got to review it and decide? Trustees should consider passing a motion to refuse to impose the plan unless it is properly funded, as was done at the Toronto District School Board. Trustees should not claim they are powerless or else what is the point of having locally elected trustees?
- Why does neither the GECDSB nor the government plan acknowledge that schools should not be opened when there is community transmission? School boards should not open schools unless community transmission is under control as it will contribute to the spread of the virus.
- Students are supposed to maintain a cohort, however 3-4 rotary teachers in elementary are supposed to visit 14 or more different classes in a week, putting them and these students and staff at greater risk for transmission. Rotary needs to be re-organized to ensure teacher preparation time but also to ensure cohorts are maintained.
- If it is safe for students and staff to return to in-person schooling why are the school board meetings still being held virtually?
- What are the options for teachers and education workers with autoimmune diseases or who are caregivers of immunocompromised family members in their home? Will they just be told to go off on short or long-term disability or be able to teach remotely? The options for those in this situation have not been identified in the plan.
- What will remote learning look like this time as opposed to what was experienced last academic year? Where is the back-up plan to ensure that the problems identified previously with lack of internet access or technology are rectified for this academic year?
- What additional cleaning and sanitation is being organized? Due to cuts to custodial staff, daily cleaning of desktops and other high touch surfaces has slowly been eliminated resulting in illness spread pre-pandemic. How is this going to be remedied now and for the longer term?
- Why is there a difference in standards for physical distancing between elementary school students (one metre) and secondary students (two metres)?
- How can students and staff maintain the social circles/bubbles of 10 people as we are asked to if kids have cohorts of more than 10 in school?
- Massey Secondary School normally has very crowded hallways and classrooms due to high student numbers and lack of physical space. Teachers normally share classrooms. What is happening now to address this specific situation?
- Counselling rooms for counselors and learning support teachers are very small. What role will these supports play at this time? Support services must have their own protocols for limits on student numbers and physical distancing.
1. For Report click here.