Organizations representing family physicians and teaching staff say there's an uptick in the number of Ontario teachers requesting medical exemptions from work amid growing concerns over potential COVID-19 transmission in schools.
Those inquiries have prompted the Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP) — which represents more than 12,500 family doctors across the province — to provide new guidance to its members on how to handle work accommodation requests from people coping with chronic illnesses.
Family physicians are "increasingly" getting the requests, including many from teachers, said Dr. Jennifer Young, president of the OCFP.
"The guidance is if you have a chronic disease that is severe, a chronic disease that's not well controlled, a chronic disease that requires immuno-suppressants ... the severity of the disease requires more than average accommodation," Young said.
That could mean requests for an in-class work exemption or other accommodations for someone with severe asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, for instance, or patients taking drugs that suppress their immune system for a variety of conditions ranging from cancer to inflammatory bowel disease.
"We have educators who were able to work in a classroom pre-pandemic, but have underlying conditions that now make being in that face-to-face situation too great a risk," said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF).
Bischof said the union's members are making a rising number of requests, while a spokesperson for the Ontario Public School Boards' Association (OPSBA) also confirmed its members are hearing of an increase "anecdotally."
While the organizations CBC News contacted don't have hard data on the spike, numbers from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) show roughly one in five returning permanent staff members may have some kind of accommodation request for the new school year.
Out of more than 24,000 permanent staff members who completed a survey from the board, roughly 95 per cent said they are returning to work, with 20 per cent of those requiring some form of accommodation, according to figures provided by the TDSB.
Meanwhile, in the Peel District School Board, more than 440 teachers have so far asked for personal medical accommodations for the start of the school year.
Of those, 366 teachers have been offered online assignments as a medical accommodation, said spokesperson Kayla Tishcoff.
Boards 'directed' to prioritize medical exemptions
According to the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), there are typically no "cookie cutter" accommodations, which can also be either temporary or permanent.
A member with a vascular condition might be excused from yard duty in extreme weather, or someone with diabetes might require coverage when carrying out necessary blood testing or going for snacks, examples ETFO offers from before the onset of the pre-pandemic.
"When an accommodation is being sought, the employer is entitled to request documentation from a medical professional, and will usually do so," the union explains on its website.
As for who actually grants those accommodations — it's not family doctors.
"Family physicians are expected to use their clinical judgment and knowledge of their patients as it relates to any potential requirements for that individual to be exempt from working in person, or to work remotely," said David Jensen, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, in a statement.
"It is not up to the family physician to determine the necessary accommodation."
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Instead, it's "up to the employer based on the Human Rights Code to make the accommodation for their employee," notes the guidance for family physicians from their college.
In this case, that means school boards. And so far, teachers' requests are typically being granted across the province.
"School boards have been directed to prioritize those with medical exemptions when granting COVID-19 workplace accommodations," noted T.J. Goertz, a spokesperson for the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, in a statement.
"We are not aware of any boards having trouble managing the current volume of workplace accommodation requests."
Speaking for the Peel board, Tishcoff said a medical accommodation to work out-of-school has not been offered in the past for teaching staff, but that's changed this year.
"Given the significant number of students who will be moving to fully-online learning, the board will be able to offer online assignments in the PDSB Online School to teaching staff who requested the accommodation within the specified time period and that demonstrate a need to be accommodated by working remotely," she explained.
Bischof said when it comes to teacher requests across the province, things are "going pretty well."
The safety issue at hand, he added, isn't boards accommodating teachers, but provincial officials implementing proper policies to protect staff and students who will be in class this year.
While the government maintains safety is at the forefront of back-to-school plans, Bischof maintains the province has "failed" to ensure there is safe ventilation or physical distancing in many Ontario schools.