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Return to school: "A lot of questions and lots of anxiety"

Protest with banner saying "Safer schools"
Pam Johnson

August 13, 2021

Despite rising COVID cases, Ontario introduced a plan for a full reopening of public school for September, including full day in-person learning with no mask mandates and no caps on class size, and without basic building safety measures such as ventilation in place yet. Socialist Worker spoke to Nigel Barriffe, executive officer of Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT), a local of Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). He is also a member of Ontario Education Workers United, a teacher activist group, and president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

What is your response to the Ontario in-person school reopening plan?

It is disappointing but not surprising. They had so much time to have taken the advice of stakeholders. I reviewed the Sick Kids Hospital report on school safety with another teacher, we were very clear to say if we don’t address class size cap of 15, paid sick days – especially for parents – that it would not be a plan. It is a huge gap that this is missing. Knowing that COVID is an airborne disease, masks should have been mandated because they help to reduce the spread, a glaring piece for me.

The plan talks about the cleaning issue. But many people are calling it ‘cleaning theatre’. We didn’t have the resources last year. The science says that the disease is airborne.

The government has been pushing all these resources and telling parents we are doing all this cleaning but, A) it is not going to stop the spread of the virus and B) there were never enough custodians hired to do the cleaning last year, much less this year.

There is a section on ventilation. The government says it put in new money, but this is not our understanding. The $500 million that was put in is from the Federal government. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports demonstrate that Ontario has NOT put new money into the system for the classrooms that don’t have a window or schools that don’t have proper mechanical ventilation.

We should have been doing this a year ago, we are just a few weeks before school starts and these issues have still not been dealt with.

Would a vaccine mandate be useful?

From my personal point of view, I have a 5-year old who attends school, my partner and I feel that the teacher and staff should be vaccinated as the safest way for him to be a learner.

Teachers already have to prove that they are vaccinated to teach.

I am seeing the debate that this is a human rights issue, but I don’t agree.

There is already process in place to support people who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons. For conscientious objectors who call it a human rights issue, let’s look at the other side of the argument. You can say no to the vaccine, but that doesn’t give you the right to teach in a public school. Some of my colleagues are struggling with this but I believe that a majority of teachers understand that this is a good public education move for us. I hope my union, ETFO, will be strong on this.

What is the mood among elementary teachers about the reopening plan?

The main feeling is unnecessary anxiety, because of the unanswered questions out there. A major concern is hybrid learning, where you have students in-person and on-line at the same time. There is no research and there is not an educator that can say that this is good for any child. The school board should just take if off the table. The board says they are going to leave it up to individual schools, which means that the principal and superintendent will make the decision.

In my opinion, that is an abdication of leadership by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), they should just take hybrid learning off the table. They should demand that the Ontario Ministry of Education provide the money so that each student has a dedicated teacher whether on-line or in-person.

Teachers still do not know the situation re: ventilation, they still do not know their class size, they still do not know whether there will be robust testing or contact tracing. So, there are a lot of questions and lots of anxiety.

But, a majority of the teachers I speak to want the school to be open, they just want them to be open safely.

Where does the union leadership stand on the reopening plan?

Statements by Sam Hammond, president of EFTO, and joint statements by the four largest public school unions have been, and continue to be, critical of the plan. They are calling for an advisor table with the ministry to address pandemic issues. So far, they are silent on vaccine mandates.

Could more be done?

I am a member of the Toronto local, the largest public sector local in the province, and largest education local in North America. We have had lots of difficulty getting a cogent response to the pandemic. Our members were looking for a more agile and responsive leadership, I don’t think we have been providing that.

There are members who want more to be done and are willing to do more and they are surprised and disappointed that it hasn’t happened. It is obvious that the Ontario Government is not listening to union leaders, parents, or front-line education workers. And while petitions are important and calling your local MPP are critical, I think the unions need to take a much bolder approach than what we have seen over the past 18 months.

What is the state of grassroots, rank and file leadership?

I continue to organize with Ontario Education Workers United, building a grassroots movement across the province to fill in gaps that the union is not ready to look at, to put pressure on the government. Parents group like Ontario Parents Action Network are crucial and critical and a leading force in putting pressure on the government. We have to continue to do more.

My biggest concern is the class consciousness of education workers. Many of us like to think of ourselves as enjoying a middle-class lifestyle, and we do. We do have benefits that many working class folks don’t have. It is a good thing what we have, but how do we make sure that we raise everybody’s bar, so we should be working hard to make sure that all of our parents have paid sick days so they can stay home with a sick child, because these are the families that we teach.

We need to be working with union members on these issues. Ford and the federal Liberals are relying on the fact that teachers are ‘comfortable’. We need to do more work to connect teachers to broader working class struggles.

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