Local educators question sincerity of Premier Ford's open letter on resuming in-class learning

·5 min read
President of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo says he wants teachers and students to return to in-person learning but he has concerns.  (Tahmina Aziz/CBC - image credit)
President of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo says he wants teachers and students to return to in-person learning but he has concerns. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC - image credit)

Windsor-Essex educators are reacting to Premier Ford's request for input on school reopenings, and the response is dissatisfaction.

"It is 14 months too late. We've been asking for this since the pandemic began," said Mario Spagnuolo, local president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario.

On Thursday, the premier solicited advice from medical experts, educators and health organizations on how to reopen schools before the end of the school year, next month.

In an open letter addressed to 55 groups and people, the premier asked for input and reiterated his government has been struggling to find a consensus on school reopenings.

"In recent weeks, there has been a wide range of advice and commentary around the reopening of schools in Ontario," Ford said in the letter.

"There is consensus in some quarters on how, when and whether schools should reopen, and diverse and conflicting views in others."

Ford sent the letter out on Thursday morning, asking for feedback by Friday at 5 p.m.

Spagnuolo says he was also "thrown off" by the 24-hour window the premier allotted for suggestions because it made him question the sincerity and seriousness of the offer for input.

Erin Roy, Ontario Secondary School Teacher's Federation District 9 president, agrees. She calls the letter a "political move."

"I don't think it's genuine, giving somebody a day's notice when we've been begging all year to be consulted on these decisions," she said.

What has changed?

Earlier this week, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams said he wanted to see students return to the classroom before the province began to reopen in June.

He said most public health units in the province support the reopening of schools, which have been closed since early- to mid-April.

The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health wrote an open letter to Ontario's Minister of Education, offering "full and unequivocal support for the re-opening of schools." That letter, dated May 20, stated that even a brief return to class before the year ends would benefit students' mental health.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford holds a press conference regarding the plan for Ontario to open up at Queen's Park during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto May 20, 2021.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford holds a press conference regarding the plan for Ontario to open up at Queen's Park during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto May 20, 2021.(Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Spagnuolo questions whether the health measures put in place are strong enough to protect students and teachers.

"What has changed? What improved safety measures has the government put in place so these variants of concerns, that are worrying medical experts, what has been put in place to assure us that our numbers won't skyrocket or that children and teachers will be safe in those classrooms," he said.

Spagnuolo points out that class sizes have not changed and the available PPE has not been updated to protect against variant strains. He says teachers want to get back to the classroom and he understands the positive impact of in-person socialization on mental health, but he says the expectations need to be clarified and more realistic.

"There's definitely a cry to go back to in-person teaching and learning, no question about it," he said, "but along with that, are the concerns that come with it."

Pivoting is not easy

Roy says opinions about returning to in-person leaning vary among teachers.

"It's really a mixed bag," she said.

Ontario Secondary School Teacher's Federation District 9 President Erin Roy says the union has asked for a provincial consultation table with the province but the request has been ignored.
Ontario Secondary School Teacher's Federation District 9 President Erin Roy says the union has asked for a provincial consultation table with the province but the request has been ignored.(Sanjay Maru/CBC)

She says some teachers are eager to go back to in-person learning whereas others are fully prepared to continue their virtual lesson plans until the end of the school year. Regardless, she says it would be a difficult task for school boards to manage.

"Pivoting is the not the most easy thing to do for a teacher," said Roy. she says the union has asked the provincial government for a provincial consultation table but the request has been ignored.

CBC News reached out to the province to find out why the premier's letter was issued with a 36-hour deadline to respond — but did not hear back.

These are the seven questions asked by Premier Doug Ford. Recipients received this letter Thursday morning and were asked to respond by Friday at 5 p.m.

  • Is the reopening of schools for in-person learning safe for students?

  • Is the reopening of schools for in-person learning safe for teachers and all education staff?

  • There are a growing number of cases in Ontario of the variant first identified in India (B.1.617). Does this mutation pose an increased risk to students and education workers?

  • The modelling from the Ontario Science Table has suggested that reopening schools will lead to an increase in cases in the province of Ontario, is this acceptable and safe?

  • Other countries are warning mutations including the B.1.617 variant are putting children at much greater risk and are shutting schools down. Is this concern not shared by medical experts in Ontario?

  • Should teachers be fully vaccinated before resuming in class lessons and if not, is one dose sufficient?

  • Under Ontario's reopening plan, indoor gatherings won't commence until July. Should indoor school instruction resume before then?