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School staff ready to return to class, though warily

Concerns still abound about potential staff shortages, safety in the classroom with the Omicron variant still spreading like wildfire.
Mike Judge
Mike Judge, president of the Thunder Bay local of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. (Leith Dunick, tbnewswatch.com)

THUNDER BAY – The head of a Thunder Bay teachers’ union local is cautiously optimistic about the province’s yet-to-be confirmed plan to return students to the classroom on Monday.

Mike Judge, president of the Lakehead Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, on Tuesday said while his members are eager to get back to in-person learning, they’re concerned about safety measures in light of the rapidly transmissible Omicron variant that’s led to record COVID-19 numbers in the province and rising hospitalizations.

Students have been learning from home since last Thursday and are scheduled to return to the classroom on Jan. 17.

Multiple media reports have confirmed from sources inside the Ontario government that the original return date would be met.

“By and large, we’re thrilled to be back in person,” Judge said.

“Because we all agree the best format for teaching is in person, face-to-face, in the classroom setting. There are challenges in terms of health and safety and things, that have yet to be put in place.”

Judge said while his membership is pleased to see N95 mask shipments have arrived, they are concerned about the fact 23 HEPA filters destined for the Lakehead Public School Board have not yet been delivered.

Judge is also concerned that there’s been no discussion about reducing class sizes.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has called a news conference for Wednesday afternoon, where he’s expected to detail the return-to-school plan. The province has resisted the call to cut classroom sizes throughout most of the pandemic.

“It’s a challenge when you have 30 or 35 students in a class, that you can’t maintain more than even a metre of physical distance. That’s not following public health recommendations, so those are challenges and concerns that teachers have in the back of their mind,” Judge said.

“But I think for the most part teachers are excited to get back to in-person learning.”

Judge said it also doesn’t take much to connect the dots when it comes to predicting teacher and student absences as a result of COVID-19. The province has reworked its protocols and has limited testing to only those in the most vulnerable settings, a list that does not include schools.

Anyone who shows symptoms has been told to assume they are COVID-positive and go into isolation – five days for those fully vaccinated and 10 days for those who aren’t. Those living in the same household must also follow the isolation rules.

Teachers and education worker vaccination rates are high, but not 100 per cent. Those who are not vaccinated are subject to regular testing, at the taxpayer’s expense.

“What will we do with staff shortages, if there aren’t enough occasional teachers to replace teachers that are off sick or off isolating? That could be a very real problem. Members are worried about how are we going to handle that burden? Are we going to be collapsing classes? Are we going to be closing schools? Are we going to have qualified people in front of students?”

Judge said he’d also like to see the province reconsider its testing rules and make more tests – and publicize the results of positive tests affecting schools – to keep education staff, students and parents informed about where outbreaks and cases are occurring in the school system.

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