TORONTO — Under pressure over his government’s back-to-school plan, Premier Doug Ford ratcheted up his attacks on teachers’ union leaders Tuesday, accusing them of playing politics.
During his daily COVID-19 media briefing Ford criticized the province’s teachers’ unions who have been critical of his plan to reopen schools, alleging it violates the province’s own health and safety laws.
The unions have said the Progressive Conservative government needs to invest more money into the system to protect children during the COVID-19 pandemic and mandate smaller class sizes, especially in elementary school.
But Ford defended his plan saying it’s been approved by experts including the province’s chief medical officer of health.
“I’m always going to listen to the doctors,” he said. “I’m not going to listen to the head of the unions that are playing politics.”
The province’s plan will see students in kindergarten through Grade 8 return to school without any reduction in class sizes, though students will spend the day in a single cohort to limit contact with other children.
Most high schoolers will also be in class full-time, though students at 24 “designated” boards across the province will take half their courses online in a bid to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Last week the province gave boards permission to access $500 million in reserve funds to hire more teachers and lease space to encourage physical distancing.
The boards, however, say those funds are largely committed to other priority projects.
Ford said Tuesday he understands that parents are nervous about the restart of school during the pandemic, but health experts feel it is safe.
“The parents I talk to, it’s not so much about the plan, it’s about COVID,” he said. “They’re nervous about COVID. I’m nervous about COVID.”
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said Ford’s fiery rhetoric directed at the unions is an attempt to deflect the blame he’s feeling from parents.
Instead of the attacks, the premier should spend more money to cut class sizes immediately, Harvey Bischof said.
“I think the difficulty here is they have set their priority according to restricted fiscal parameters,” he said. “That doesn’t give them the leeway to do what’s right by students and educators and the families they go home to. So, they’re looking for a villain.”
The president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said Ford’s attacks are a distraction.
“I think they just see us as an easy target,” Liz Stuart said. “(Ford) wants to get people to rally around those attacks as opposed to actually focusing on … the gaps in his plan.”
On Friday, all four of the province’s major teachers’ unions said in a letter to the government that its back-to-school plan violates its own occupational health and safety legislation.
They have asked for a meeting with the minister of labour and representatives to discuss the issue by Aug. 21, and failing that they may take their concerns to the province’s labour board.
“I haven’t heard anything definitive at this point,” Bischof said of the meeting request. “I’m going to, right now, remain hopeful that the minister takes a reasonable approach.”
Ontario’s Tory government has had a rocky relationship with the province’s teachers’ unions since taking office in 2018.
Earlier this year, the government concluded a contentious round of contract talks with the unions after months of teacher walk outs that led to days-long school closures.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said Ford’s repeated attacks on the unions shows the government is desperate to change the channel on its controversial plan.
“The government is feeling the heat and to deflect they have decided to play a blame game here,” she said. “Parents are tired of excuses. The government has messed up this return to school plan and they need to do the right thing.”
Late Tuesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce told school boards that they will be allowed to stagger the start of school over the first two weeks of the year.
“If there are changes to the staggered reopening, we ask boards to clearly communicate this to their parent community,” Lecce said in the memo to boards.
Previously, the government had told boards that they could stagger the start of school over the first week of the year if they felt it would help improve safety.
Meanwhile, Ontario is reporting 125 new cases of COVID-19 and four new deaths related to the virus.
The total number of cases now stands at 40,870, which includes 2,793 deaths and 37,126 cases marked as resolved.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the “uptick” in cases is due to increases in Peel Region, Toronto and Windsor-Essex. She said 27 of Ontario’s 34 public health regions reported five or fewer cases, while 16 reported no new cases.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press