OSSTF Toronto calls on TDSB and TPH to put meaningful measures in place to make schools safer

February 3, 2021 OSSTF Toronto Teachers’ Bargaining Unit open statement on school reopening announcement

On February 1, 2021 Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced four new measures that he says allow for the safe opening of schools:

  • Provincewide access to targeted asymptomatic testing for students and staff, using a combination of lab-processed PCR and rapid antigen tests;
  • Mandatory masking for students in Grades 1-3, including outdoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained;
  • Enhanced screening of secondary students and staff;
  • New guidance discouraging students from congregating before and after school; and
  • Temporary certification of eligible teacher candidates who are set to graduate in 2021 to stabilize staffing levels, following high levels of absenteeism

“While we welcome as a positive step the introduction of asymptomatic testing  – something we called for last December – and the use of rapid antigen testing, it is unclear how the other measures will have any additional positive impact on the safety of workers or students in schools”, said Leslie Wolfe, President of the Toronto Teachers’ local of OSSTF.

Since September, TDSB students from the youngest age have been wearing masks indoors, and encouraged to do so outdoors when they can’t physically distance. 

Under the direction of Toronto Public Health all staff and students have completed a daily COVID-19 self-assessment and had that completion confirmed prior to school entry. 

Guidance about the congregation of students before and after school may be useful for enforcement on school grounds, but will have no impact on what happens after school hours, or during the weekend. 

The TDSB has a robust list of available Secondary Occasional Teachers ready for employment.

The numbers matter

In the face of continued high numbers of COVID positivity in Toronto, these initiatives simply do not measure up to improved protection in the TDSB.

While it is true that Toronto’s 7-day rolling average has fallen, it still remains at approximately 760 per day, with a rate of 170 new cases per week per 100,000 people (as at the writing of this letter, based on the last reports that contained data from TPH).  

When asked what metrics the government is using to determine whether or not schools should open, the Chief Medical Officer for Ontario, Dr. David Williams said “let’s say under 200 (cases per 100,000 per week), they’re now 100 to 150 in that range there. Can they still open? I say yes. With proper checks and balances.”  

Yet, according to the Toronto Star, the Harvard Global Health Initiative says 25 cases per 100,000 per week is a safe school reopening threshold.

In any case, we do not believe “the proper checks and balances” are in place.

In-person is best, but only when health and safety are protected

OSSTF Toronto has always held  that in-person learning is better educationally for students. We understand experts agree that in-person learning has a positive impact on student mental health relative to the potentially detrimental impact of remote learning. 

OSSTF Toronto does not agree, however, with catastrophizing the state of student learning as some have recently taken to doing. 

“While online learning is absolutely inferior to in-person learning, Teachers are working long hours to develop meaningful lessons to engage their students, and students are learning.  To suggest otherwise is misleading, and an insult to both students, and their teachers”, said Wolfe.

OSSTF Toronto is therefore calling on Toronto Public Health and the Toronto District School Board to implement the following measures, to be in place when schools reopen:

  • Provide N-95 or equivalent standard respirator masks to all education workers who want them; 
  • Ensure all workers are provided with high quality, rigid plastic visors to replace soft plastic visors currently in use in many sites;
  • Ensure that any school with two or more positive cases reported within any 7 day period implements rapid-testing and/or asymptomatic testing no later than the day after the second case is confirmed positive;
  • Ensure that any school that is situated in a community where the test positivity rate is at 3% or above, has access to rapid-testing and/or asymptomatic testing no later than the day after the second case is confirmed positive;
  • Require all students and visitors to wear a minimum of ASTM Level 2, 3-ply medical grade mask when in school or, when unable to maintain two meter physical distance outdoors;
  • Make public the schools that have received HVAC air handling improvements,
  • HEPA filters, new windows that open, or other upgrades to improve ventilation and fresh air circulation, and also make public the evidence of improved outside air exchange rates;
  • Immediately restart the daily school-by-school case reporting.

“The fact that 3823 families of TDSB secondary students have opted to switch from in-person to online learning for the third quadmester, while less than a tenth that number have opted to switch back to in-person, speaks volumes about whether or not they believe schools are safe enough to risk in-person learning”, Leslie Wolfe said.