Ontario Teachers Seek Workplace Safety Orders

As the start of the school year nears, many parents, students and teachers remain concerned over the safety challenges of implementing the provincial plan for elementary and high schools. Ontario teachers, through various teacher’s unions, are calling for the Ministry of Labour to issue various workplace safety orders to ensure a number of safety standards in schools across the province.

The Province’s Back to School Plan

The province recently announced the plan for resuming in-class schooling. There are separate plans for elementary and high school, set out as follows:

Elementary Schools

  • Kindergarten through Grade 8 will attend school five days per week.
  • Students will remain in one cohort for the full day, including recess and lunch.
  • Cohorted classes will stay together and with one teacher, where possible.
  • Specialized teachers, such and French teachers, will still be able to go into classrooms to provide teach their designated subjects.
  • Students in Grades 4 to 8 will be required to wear non-medical or cloth masks indoors in school, including in hallways and during classes.
  • Students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 will be encouraged but not required to wear masks in indoor spaces.
  • Class sizes are to remain the same.

Secondary Schools

  • All school boards should adopt procedures and schedules that emphasize the cohorting of students as much as possible, to limit the number of student-to- student contacts.
  • School boards are to develop timetables that over a 1- to 2-week period:
    • Limit indirect and direct student contacts to approximately 100 students in the school; and
    • Keep secondary school students in a maximum of two in-person class cohorts.
    • Students at some school boards will be taking part of their classes online to reduce in-person contact.
  • All students in grades 9-12 are required to wear masks indoors.

Teacher Unions’ Concerns Over the Current Plan

First and foremost, teachers would like to see a reduction in class sizes to a maximum of 15-20, to allow for proper social distancing in classrooms. Further, they want to see the government fund the costs associated with these changes. Currently, the province has asked that Boards use their own reserves to fund the leasing of extra space or hiring of additional staff when necessary.

Teachers have also raised concerns over the ventilation systems currently in place, wanting to see a similar standard as the one that has been approved for Ontario courthouses. A recent letter to union members said,

The Ministry was asked why, if those standards were good enough for judges and lawyers, they were not good enough for students, teachers and education workers.

The letter also stated a strong concern due to a lack of specific health and safety standards directed by the Ministry of Education. Boards would like to see the school year delayed until such standards have been put into place. The Unions have stated that if specific safety orders are not put into place by today, they plan to file a complaint with the Ontario Labour Board.

In response to teacher’s concerns, the province has stated that school boards will be permitted to stagger the start of the school year for the first two weeks. It has also pledged to spend $50 million on upgrades to school ventilation systems across the province. Further, the Minister of Labour, via a spokesperson, has said that “[health and safety] inspectors are currently working with safety staff and Joint Health and Safety Committee co-chairs at school boards across Ontario”.

This issue remains ongoing, and with the start of the school year fast approaching, it remains dynamic. There are a number of concerns on all sides, from safety concerns regarding potential COVID-19 outbreaks to childcare issues if the school year is delayed further. For parents who are unable to work from home, further delays could also impact their ability to attend work, necessitating workplace accommodations. We will continue to monitor the situation and update as necessary.

If you are a union member concerned about your working conditions, Peter McSherry can help. Our office regularly advises unionized workers on their options and can help provide you with the tools, resources and skills to pursue your best possible resolution for a union issue. Contact our office today by phone at 519-821-5465 or online to schedule a consultation.