With about seven weeks before school will be back in session and no clear plan yet from the Ministry of Education on what a return to school will look like in September, education worker unions are starting to feel uneasy.
On Friday (July 23), education support staff from Simcoe-Muskoka schools represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) met provincial union leaders in Barrie to share concerns about the safe return to school.
CUPE represents approximately 400 custodial and maintenance staff at the Simcoe County District School Board, about 200 custodians at Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and close to 300 education workers from a wide range of classifications at Bruce Grey Catholic District School Board.
“Off the top, our major concern is that there is no plan,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU). “The landscape has changed. In May when it was being discussed, we weren’t yet seeing the vaccinations in the over-12 (group), but now we are.”
The OSBCU represents 55,000 CUPE education workers province-wide.
Walton said about 12 members attended today’s session in Barrie to share their concerns, and raised issues such as ventilation.
“Ventilation is key. Sufficient staffing is also a concern ... staff still need to be sanitizing. They want to ensure (air) filters are changed. This is work that the custodians in both of the school boards here do,” said Walton. “Our members are also parents, so the learning conditions for their children impact them as well.”
“We have members who have gone on unpaid leaves because they weren’t able to work during the height of the pandemic,” she said.
Walton points to the population of four to 11-year-olds who can’t yet be vaccinated, and noted concerns that class size numbers don’t seem to be budging to ensure those groups can socially distance.
“We cannot go through another school year with this uncertainty,” she said.
Walton said CUPE has been to seven other stops in Ontario already with about 10 more planned. The plan is to gather the information to help inform the union’s discussions with decision-makers going forward.
“What we’re hearing varies from region to region,” she said. “What it all comes down to is the ministry (of education) properly investing in education so the school boards can do what’s necessary.”
Walton says that any plan put in place by the province will need to provide stability.
“We’re less than seven weeks before school returns. It takes people time to ensure they have (plans) in place. We need to prepare these kids,” she said.