– Education is a Right Podcast, August 9, 2020 –
On August 9, a virtual Education Open Forum was hosted by Education is a Right Podcast* for educators, students, parents, and other concerned community members in the region of Windsor-Essex to discuss plans for the re-opening of schools. Windsor-Essex continues to have community transmission and outbreaks in multiple workplaces despite moving into Stage 3. Stage 3 reopening calls for observing public health guidelines and physical distancing requirements. The government’s school reopening plan makes this impossible where full attendance is required in all elementary schools. This added an extra layer of concern over re-opening plans as opening schools where there is community transmission represents a danger, not just the students and staff but to the entire community, province and country. The forum was called in the context of the local public school board holding a special meeting to approve their local plans based on the provincial government’s guidelines that neither impose nor fund minimum physical distancing standards in elementary.
Participants in the forum included: students, elementary and secondary teachers both permanent and occasional, support staff from a variety of areas including speech and language, educational assistants and counselors as well as concerned community members and parents.
Participants decided that a summary of the meeting would be provided to inform others about concerns and that everyone is encouraged to contact their trustees before Tuesday August 11 when the Board of Trustees of the Greater Essex County District School Board is meeting to receive its plan for re-opening. In addition, everyone is encouraged to contact the local public health authority to express their concerns and demand that schools not open unless proper physical distancing is funded, especially in the elementary panel. A petition to this effect has been produced as should be signed and shared.
At the outset, it was noted that ideally the government or unions that represent those working in education would be calling such open forums for their own members and the community to ensure that there is broad input, discussion and deliberation on the plans for re-opening so everyone can work together to put forward solutions and feel empowered. However, in this case, the government has deliberately operated so as to limit public participation in any decision making to the extent that even school board trustees who are elected to represent local constituents about their education system claim that they have no power in the situation. It was pointed out that the government is using the idea of “choice” in whether families send their children to school or not in order to divide the people between those who will send their children into schools and those who will not. Instead of working to ensure the schools are safe and involving front line educators, students and parents in deciding how to re-open they give people the “choice” to either go into an unsafe environment or keep their children home. Not only do the most vulnerable in our society not have such a choice but it is a false choice meant to force people into two untenable situations. This also attacks the very notion of public education whereby the interests of everyone are supposed to be upheld as a whole; not divided between those with the means to do private education or home schooling and those without. This discriminates against working class families and racialized groups. Nonetheless, the point of the Open Forum was to see how we can unite ourselves to bring forward our concerns to one another and hopefully see what can be done to address them as individuals and as a collective.
An intervention was then given on the recommendations of the July 29 Toronto Sick Kids Report that is being used by the provincial government to justify re-opening of schools they way they are, in particular with no limits on class sizes to ensure physical distancing in elementary school. The Sick Kids Report identified the major way to stop the spread of the virus in schools was physical distancing between children with 1m minimum distance for children in kindergarten to grade 8 and 2m for those in high school (grades 9-12) as well as cohorting of students so they remain with one group. They also identified the need for funding for trained screeners at the schools, health-care providers working with the schools, additional custodian and cleaning staff and increased teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists.
The authors of the Sick Kids Report were not in agreement on mask use for school-aged children and identified PPE as the least effective measure to stop the spread of Sars-Cov2 in their hierarchy of measures. The key point being that the government seems to have chosen to ignore the recommendations for physical distancing in elementary by instead mandating mask use for grade 4 to 8, where the largest class sizes exist. Meanwhile, for students below grade 4, neither is mask wearing being mandated nor is a strategy to decrease class size to make physical distancing possible being put in place. This is a fundamental flaw in the government’s plans that reveals they are not following the recommendations of the Report but cherry picking what bolsters their intention to open the school without the proper investments.
The Report also recommends that educational assistants be assigned to one room rather than is currently the practice where they are assigned to multiple students in multiple rooms to limit contacts between cohorts of students. It was also noted that supply teachers are recommended to be assigned to one school and that a two-week waiting period be utilized if there is a need to switch the supply teacher from one school to another.
Another intervention was made on the role of the local public health authority. It was noted that the local Medical Officer of Health’s powers are defined by the Health and Public Protection Act and that this officer is responsible for imposing quarantine orders and other orders to protect public health. It was pointed out that there appear to be conflicting authorities for dealing with schools in the pandemic as schools come under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, despite the fact that the role of schools and communicable disease is listed under the Health and Public Protection Act. It was noted that the Ministry of Health also has jurisdiction and that it is important to investigate further who can do what in order to identify ways of ensuring that standards for healthy and safe schools are upheld. In this light, a local petition was highlighted that is calling on the local Medical Officer of Health not to permit the opening of elementary schools until proper funding is provided to ensure that students can physically distance 2 meters.
Several questions and concerns were then raised by participants about the overall situation and the specific plan being put forward by the Greater Essex County District School Board to trustees on August 11.
Questions, concerns and proposals:
Black communities have been more adversely affected by COVID19. This pandemic has shone light on the system inequities that exist. Many students did not have parents at home to assist them as they were working. Some students went to work in the agribusiness industry where there are outbreaks. The re-opening plans are making the inequities worse and essentially takes risks with specific segments of our population and treats them as guinea pigs. It is about profit over people and no one should be used as a guinea pig.
What steps are our unions taking to ensure teacher and other staff safety and to ensure that collective agreements are not violated?
What steps we can take if we are asked to do work that is clearly unsafe or if it doesn’t follow the collective agreement?
Neither masks nor physical distancing can occur in many special education classrooms and students are often in a medically fragile state. What kind of extra precautions and safety measures are being implemented for these students to guarantee their right to education and for staff?
The local GECDSB has imposed a time frame of February for elementary students to return to in-class learning if their parents decide they want to have their children return to in-class learning after the September start. Other school boards have more frequent and return windows for elementary students. Why has the GECDSB decided to prevent an earlier return for students? Students should have the option to return in November following the progress report.
Parents should be given full information and adequate time to review the plans to decide whether to have their kids go back to school or stay on-line. The current plan was not even officially released until Tuesday August 11 and families have until August 17 to decide whether to send children back in September. This is an unrealistic time frame and should be extended so parents can make an informed decision. Parents should be given a manual that outlines key measures to consider.
Why was the plan sent to the government before school board trustees got to review it and decide? Trustees should consider passing a motion to refuse to impose the plan unless it is properly funded as was done at the Toronto District School Board. Trustees should not claim they are powerless or else what is the point of having locally elected trustees?
Why does neither the GECDSB nor the government’s plans acknowledge that schools should not be opened when there is community transmission? School boards should not open schools unless community transmission is under control as it will contribute to the spread of the virus.
Students are supposed to maintain a cohort, however 3-4 rotary teachers in elementary are supposed to visit 14 or more different classes in a week, putting them and these students and staff at risk for greater transmission. Rotary needs to be re-organized to ensure teacher preparation time but also to ensure cohorts are maintained.
If it is safe for students and staff to return to in-person schooling why are the school board meetings still being held virtually?
What are the options for teachers and education workers with autoimmune diseases or who are caregivers of immunocompromised family members in their home? Will they just be told to go off on short or long-term disability or be able to teach remotely? The options for those in this situation have not been identified in the plan.
What will remote learning look like this time as opposed to what was experienced last academic year? Where is the back-up plan to ensure that the problems identified previously with lack of internet access or technology are rectified for this academic year?
What additional cleaning and sanitation is being organized? Due to cuts to custodial staff, daily cleaning of desktops and other high touch surfaces has slowly been eliminated resulting in illness spread pre-pandemic. How is this going to be remedied now and for the longer term?
Why is there a difference in standards for physical distancing between elementary school students (1m) and secondary students (2m)?
How can students and staff maintain the social circles/bubbles of 10 people as we are asked if kids have cohorts of more than 10 in school?
Massey Secondary School normally has very crowded hallways and classrooms due to high student numbers and lack of physical space. Teachers normally share classrooms. What is happening now to address this specific situation?
Counselling rooms for counselors and learning support teachers are very small. What role will these supports play at this time? Support services must have their own protocols for limits on student numbers and physical distancing.
- Petition to Windsor-Essex Medical Officer of Health
- Contact information Windsor Essex Medical Officer of Health:
Dr. Wajid Ahmed
Medical Officer of Health
519-258-2146 ext. 1421
3 Trustees of the GECDSB:
Representing Windsor Wards 1, 2 and 9
Dr. Jessica Sartori
Representing Windsor Wards 1, 2 and 9
Representing Windsor Wards 3, 4 and 10
Representing Windsor Wards 3, 4 and 10
Representing Windsor Wards 5, 6, 7 and 8
Representing Windsor Wards 5, 6, 7 and 8
Representing the Town of Lakeshore, Town of Tecumseh
Representing the Town of Leamington and Pelee Island
Ron Le Clair – Chairperson of the Board
Representing the Town of Amherstburg, Town of LaSalle
Representing the Town of Essex and the Town of Kingsville
Student Trustee – City Representative
c/o Vincent Massey Secondary School
Student Trustee – County Representative
c/o Leamington District Secondary School