By Kirk Winter

Premier Doug Ford’s announcement of temporary closures of all publicly-funded schools in Ontario beginning January 4, 2021 has raised the ire of Ontario’s three largest teacher federations.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) bemoaned what they considered to be a lack of consultation regarding the closings, a poorly thought-out return of elementary students to in-person learning while the province is still locked down and a lack of detail and inherent inequalities regarding virtual learning.

On December 21, Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce temporarily closed schools beginning January 4, 2021 with all students at all grades transitioning to virtual learning. Elementary students are scheduled to return to in-person learning on January 11, while secondary students will not return to brick-and-mortar schools until January 25.

In an open letter to parents Jan. 3, Lecce said schools are safe and COVID cases in them are minimal. “We will continue and enhance testing in schools … we will do whatever it takes to ensure our kids can continue to learn.” The province hopes that this closure will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 which is currently spiralling ever higher, particularly in southern Ontario.

Liz Stuart, president of OECTA, which represents Catholic elementary teachers, believes the decisions to close schools “is long overdue.”

However, Stuart wonders where the consultation was between the province and the education workers in the lead-up to this decision being made.

“The province should have been engaging the education community in this decision,” Stuart said, “and there has instead been no prior consultation and few details of what this closure is going to look like.”

Sam Hammond, president of ETFO, which represents all public elementary teachers in Haliburton, was baffled by the provincial decision to bring elementary school students back to school on January 11, while secondary students are being asked to stay home until January 25.

“The plan to reopen elementary schools in the midst of a province-wide lockdown doesn’t make sense. These new provincial restrictions will not be effective unless every possible action is taken to prevent COVID19 transmission in elementary schools when they reopen. It’s time to do what is urgently needed, not what is politically convenient,” Hammond said.

Hammond agrees with Stuart that the lack of planning by the province for this closure is unfortunate.

“Had this government made its decision earlier, boards, educators, families and students could have been better prepared for the transition back to virtual learning beginning January,” Hammond said.

Harvey Bischoff, President of OSSTF, which represents all public high school teachers in Haliburton, added his voice to the other leaders who criticized the lack of consultation.

“Once again, despite this announcement’s significant impact on Ontario’s publicly funded school system, there was no prior consultation with organizations representing frontline educators,” Bischoff said. “This will lead to unnecessary flaws in implementation that could have been addressed in advance, and could have led to better decisions made in the best interests of Ontario students.”

Bischoff also reminded Ontarians of the inherent inequalities Hammond noted regarding virtual education. “Sadly, the government has not adequately mitigated the fact that many students and families do not have access to the technology or reliable internet connections that would allow access to online learning. This demonstrates a clear failure on the part of the Ford government to address the inequities created by relying solely upon online learning solutions for students.

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