Unions urge Hamilton’s top doctor to close special education classrooms until educators vaccinated

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Unions representing thousands of Hamilton educators are urging public health to close special education classrooms — the only ones that will continue in person next week — until educators are vaccinated.

In an April 15 joint letter, education unions called on Hamilton’s medical officer of health, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, to “immediately issue an order that would keep all staff and students home” until educators have some immunity against COVID-19.

“Keeping schools open for in-person learning while infection rates are spiralling out of control puts those staff and students ... at greater risk of exposure and infection, and unnecessarily jeopardizes their health and safety and that of their families,” the letter reads.

The letter was penned by seven union representatives, including from the local bargaining unit for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) and the Hamilton-Wentworth chapter of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.

Most Ontario students will be learning remotely come Monday, but some students with special needs — and the staff who support them — will continue to learn in-person. Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act gives local medical officers of health the authority to order school closures in their region.

Educators say some of these students are medically fragile and can’t maintain physical distance or wear a mask.

In an email to The Spectator, Richardson said public health is working with school boards to address “concerns expressed by the school community” and “ensure the operation of special education programs in a safe a way as possible.”

“We have seen low transmission in schools, where child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare, and the majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures,” she said.

Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District Board chair Pat Daly said the board recognizes the “heroic work” of its staff.

“We continue to strongly advocate that school education staff be prioritized with regards to receipt of vaccination,” he said.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board previously advocated for vaccines for educators in a letter to the province, citing “disturbing” COVID-related staff absences.

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator