Tuesday marked exactly one week before the beginning of the school year. It’s a time when students, teachers, parents and school workers get themselves ready to start the next 10 months of learning on the right foot, but there’s presently a concern that the coming school year will actually be starting off on the wrong foot. The Green Party of Ontario’s leader is among them.
“This should be a time of excitement, of new beginnings and opportunities to reconnect with classmates and teachers, but instead it’s a time of anxiety, worry and frustration,” said Guelph MPP and GPO leader Mike Schreiner at a media availability from Queen’s Park this morning.
“Yesterday, a diverse group of stakeholders met with all three opposition parties to talk about how we prevent a fourth wave. It was very clear: all the experts said school should be the last to close, and the first to re-open,” Schreiner added.
So what was Schreiner and the experts he’s talked to recommending? Lower class sizes of 15 max., mandatory vaccinations for all eligible staff and students, more and better PPE including N95 masks, improved ventilation in schools, and a robust testing and contract tracing program.
“We’re also calling on the Ford government to ensure that we address the mental health challenges that so many students are facing,” Schreiner added. “That means committing to eliminating any hybrid learning plans or quadmesters that have negative impacts on students mental health and the quality of their learning, and ensuring that we have a sufficient number of mental health service providers to eliminate unacceptable wait times.”
Schreiner called out Premier Doug Ford for “dithering” and inaction, and noted the rise in new daily COVID cases, and the fact that children born before 2009 still can’t get vaccinated as reasons to take immediate action, and to steal the Green Party’s Back to School Plan ideas. “Keeping our schools open and safe for students and staff is bigger than politics,” Schreiner said. “It is vital at this moment that we put people before politics. This is about the well being our children, their safety and their future.”
Earlier this month, the leaders of Ontario’s four biggest education unions expressed similar concerns as Schreiner about the Ontario government’s back to school plan saying that ventilation investments are too little and too late, and that there were huge gaps in direction on managing outbreaks and readjusting students to in-person learning.
“Throughout this pandemic, Premier Ford and [Education] Minister [Stephen] Lecce have repeatedly refused to do the right thing, jeopardizing the health and safety of students, teachers, and education workers, while perpetuating the disruptions that have led to extraordinary learning loss and deteriorating mental health,” said Barb Dobrowolski, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) in a separate statement.
“It’s clear that Premier Ford and Minister Lecce are relying on vaccinations alone to provide a safe school reopening and a return to extracurriculars. What they seem to have forgotten is that Ontarians remain at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, and most elementary children are ineligible for vaccines,” added Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) president Sam Hammond. “The Ford government’s consistent and reckless disregard for the seriousness of this pandemic will not keep students, staff and their families safe.”
Schreiner’s presser also came on the same day that the Ford government is expected to unveil their province-wide vaccine certification program. Already beyond this, Schreiner suggested that COVID-19 vaccinations should be added to the list of mandatory vaccines that are already required for eligible students, but he did have specific ideas about what a vaccine certificate program should look like.
“It needs to be consistent across the province, it needs to provide legal protections to small businesses, healthcare institutions, and others who are charged with enforcing the program, and it needs to have a sunset clause to make it very clear that this is a temporary measure because we’re in an unprecedented public health crisis,” Schreiner explained.
“It needs to be simple and easily accessible for people, and we need to ensure that it’s available for everyone. If using QR codes is the approach we take, they also need to be available for people who do not have smartphones,” Schreiner added. “We need to make sure it’s easy to implement by businesses, especially small businesses, and we need better communication from the Province about why we need this program, how it’s going to benefit people, and why it’s vital to help avoiding another lockdown.”