Back to school, Part 3: A union president on reopening safely speaks with Sam Hammond of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario about what it will take — and cost — to get students and staff back in class
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jul 23, 2020
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario represents 83,000 teachers, occasional teachers, and education professionals working in the province’s public elementary schools. (iStock/manonallard)



This is the third instalment in a series on reopening Ontario’s public schools. Read Part 2 here.

As Ontario moves into Stage 3 of reopening, critics of the Doug Ford government have sounded the alarm that the province will be allowing relatively high-risk activities, such as service inside bars and restaurants, to resume before the province has sufficiently flattened the curve. A resurgence of COVID-19 now, it is feared, would jeopardize the reopening of schools in September. A common criticism of the Tories has been that they have developed only general guidelines — not a plan to reopen schools — and that time is running out. What would such a plan look like? This week, is asking experts and insiders for their views on what a safe reopening for schools would mean and what challenges it would entail. Today: Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.

Matt Gurney: I spoke earlier this week with a teacher who talked about communication — or the lack thereof. Everything she was hearing, basically, amounted to, “We’re working on it.” To your knowledge, what is the state of the plan to reopen schools in September?

Sam Hammond: So the current state of the plan, I think, is chaos, quite frankly. About a month ago, the minister of education said the school boards, in conjunction with local stakeholders in each board, should develop three plans — three scenarios for reopening in September. School boards have done that, for the most part, and developed those. Or they’re in the process of doing so.

But, while that's been going on, over the last week or so, the minister has indicated that there may be a clear direction from the government in terms of what is expected. Both the premier and the minister have said, hey, we're hearing from parents that they want their children in school five days a week. But they have not confirmed that, nor have they confirmed that they’ll be ready with the pieces we’d need to make that possible.

My understanding is that August 4 is when the ministry is going to announce what the plan will be. I'm not sure if it's going to be based on scenarios from school boards or if they're going to have a master provincial plan. We'll have to wait and see.

Gurney: An issue that keeps popping up in my reporting on this is staffing. We can talk about specific staffing challenges in a minute, but, even in general terms, if we’re going to be reducing the size of classes to permit physical distancing inside classrooms, the actual rooms, we’re likely going to need more teachers. Is there a vast pool of human beings available on standby that could be brought into service, or is that going to be a challenge?

Hammond: I think the staffing levels for in-classroom instruction, or wherever it might take place, should be sufficient. We should have the staff available. What the government will have to look at is, if they're going to insist that it's voluntary for parents to send their kids to school — and there is online learning taking place or remote online learning taking place, either simultaneously or at other times of the day — they're going to need additional staff for that piece of it. Because they certainly shouldn't and can't expect teachers that are teaching all day to go home and do two to three hours in the evening of online learning. If that's the model, there are occasional teachers, certified occasional teachers, who are more than willing to step into what we call long-term-occasional positions to do that. They could do online learning and fill in for teachers throughout the year. If it's a conventional model, there should be enough teachers.

But that staffing is only one component part of what needs to be in a plan, and this part of the plan would require funding.

Gurney: I don’t mean to make you repeat yourself, but I want to be explicit about this point, because I think this is critical. It’s something I’ve been worried about. If the province comes up with the money, there are people available that can be hired.

Hammond: Yeah. I think that’s the case. It will very much depend on what the model is. If it’s a conventional model, the staffing should be available, including using occasional teachers. But the other part of this is, if this plan is going to be successful, we’re not just talking teachers. They need to look at educational assistants, behaviour therapists, speech and language therapists, school counsellors — the list goes on. Teachers and students will have a lot to deal with.

Gurney: I don’t want to sound alarmist. I have young kids — believe me, I want this to work. But we need to have a plan for failure. If we open the schools and see major outbreaks in schools, or if we have another major second wave across the province, we need to be prepared for that. And one of the things that could happen — could — would be teachers becoming unable or unwilling to work. Some who are young and in good health could probably safely stay in a classroom even as case numbers increased. Some who are older or have medical conditions might need to withdraw. Do you have any idea about the demographics of the workforce and what this could mean?

Hammond: I don’t have those numbers right now, but, yes, we’d have access to them. We’d have demographic information on our members in a general sense — I couldn’t give you personal information, but I could tell you average ages, things like that. We’d know how many are over 40, say, and how many are under. Yes, that information exists. And, yes, you’re right. Some of our membership is going to be more vulnerable, due to age or medical conditions, and there really isn’t anything in place to ensure their well-being. Age will not be a factor for 99.9 per cent of our membership, but there are health conditions, yes. We need to see steps in place to protect them and to protect other people who’ll be working in schools. And we’ll need a plan in place to accommodate those who are not able to safely return to work.

Gurney: For those with medical conditions of concern, is that existing data that you’d have? Or is that something that you guys might need to scramble to compile between now and the start of the school year? Will you need to send out a survey?

Hammond: I couldn’t get that information instantly. It’s not at my fingertips. But the insurance plan for the teachers, and the pension plan, would probably have a lot of that information.

Gurney: And the reason I’m asking, Sam, is because I’m wondering … what happens if a teacher just says no way. My personal risk tolerance says that I’m not going to work in the fall. We have seen this already in other areas. We needed soldiers to backfill in long-term-care homes. We’ve had hospitals struggle with staffing — it’s happening in the southern United States right now. People either become ill or simply refuse to go to work in an unsafe environment. We were just talking a minute ago about whether you’d have enough teachers. The math will change if thousands decide it’s too risky to work. How would that be handled?

Hammond: The key to this whole thing is what chief medical officers of health, both provincially and regionally, say the concerns are and how those concerns should be dealt with. Certainly, going on a leave of absence might be an option. We're still looking at those issues every day, trying to come to terms with that. We don't simply want people saying, “We're not going to work.” There have to be sound reasons for that decision. And those sound reasons have to be linked to what the chief medical officer is saying. It's a difficult situation because there's fear out there. There’s anxiety around COVID and how it's affecting people and killing people. So we are hoping that, by August 4, when the plan comes out, we see some of those pieces starting to come together.

Gurney: Let’s talk about August 4 for a minute. So assume we get the plan. I’ve worked in big institutions and bureaucracies, and having a plan is one thing. Being able to put that plan into action is another. So what happens on August 5? What do you need to do between August 4 and the beginning of September to get schools open again?

Hammond: The first thing we do, obviously, is go through it in detail. But we actually don’t even have until September. Some schools will actually open on August 31 to staff, and others will open on September 3, and some the week after. So it will be critical to take that plan, look at it carefully for the health and safety elements, and discover how teachers and education workers will be protected in the system.

Will the plan include personal protective equipment for everyone? Will it include those things that we just talked about in terms of people whose immune system is compromised, how they're going to be dealt with? If there's an outbreak or a suspected outbreak in a classroom or in a school, what are the protocols that are going to be in place for that? We need to wait and see what that plan includes and very quickly start to deal with that on a go-forward basis.

Gurney: A teacher I interviewed this week told me they have a lot of doubt that this is going to work. Sure, maybe we’ll be able to reopen the schools, but they doubted they’d stay open for long. And, when you look at what’s happening in the United States and other places that have opened up, I know what they mean. I’m doubtful, too. Just speaking for yourself, how’s your level of confidence that we’ll be able to do this?

Hammond: At this point, I have very little confidence that we can safely return to school in September. I say that for a couple of reasons. When we're opening bars and we're opening the province, my fear is that there's going to be a second wave or at least the beginning of a second wave. If the protocols are not in place in schools, for the safety and well-being of everyone involved, that's going to be extremely problematic. I agree with that teacher. We may open, but, depending on what that plan is and what the protocols are, I don't know how long schools will stay reopened.

The key to this is funding. The premier has said from the very beginning that he would spare no expense when it came to the safety and well-being of the economy and the people in this province. He says we have to defend against COVID-19. And now they're telling school boards there's no more money. There's no money for COVID-19; there's no more money for the reopening of schools. This week, the Waterloo school board said it's going to cost them $600,000 in additional money just to keep buses clean in their region. That’s additional money. Boards will try to find it within their budgets. They won’t be able to in most cases. This thing is going to fall apart.

Gurney: Well, that’s discouraging, but not surprising. So what would it take? Obviously, the public-health situation can change dramatically, and I’m not going to hold that against you. But assuming there isn’t some major emergency that we can’t plan for, what can we do? What can we plan for?

Hammond: Additional staff. Additional funding for that staff. Very clear protocols that keep people out of situations that jeopardize their safety or well-being. There needs to be more co-operation and input from all the stakeholders, right across the board. This can’t be a plan that’s just imposed by the province. That’s what we’ll need to try and do this right. If you don’t have all stakeholders working together, if you don't have input from administrators in schools, and you don't have input from teachers and education workers who are on the ground, it's going to be very difficult to reopen.

First we need the plans, and then we need the funding to accomplish those plans. The minister and the premier cannot be saying that we have no money to make this happen. If that's the case, don't open schools. Because you're going to find very quickly that, without that additional staff and those safety protocols, all the PPE and cleaning and bus cleaning — it won’t work.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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