TORONTO — Ontario’s teacher unions are calling for the mass vaccination of all education workers and more protection in schools against COVID-19 as a third wave surges across the province.

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, union leaders said online learning should be adapted across the province until the safety of staff and students can be guaranteed.

“Immediate steps must be taken to ensure the safety of education workers and students in hot spot areas including a temporary move from in-person to virtual learning,” said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario.

He also thanked public health officials in Toronto and Guelph, Ont., for moving their schools to virtual learning on Wednesday. He also praised Peel Region’s top doctor for shifting to online classes on Tuesday.

Hammond was joined at the news conference by representatives of unions for secondary school teachers, English Catholic teachers, Franco-Ontarian teachers, and non-educational school staff.

Hammond said that about one in four schools in Ontario have an active COVID-19 case but that the true number of infections is probably larger.

“The incidents of cases in schools is likely much higher but because the government has failed to provide sufficient access to asymptomatic testing we simply don’t know to what extent,” said Hammond.

All of the educational worker unions called for mass vaccinations of school staff as soon as possible. Hammond said that his union was open to mobile immunization clinics vaccinating staff on site.

“I have no idea why that hasn’t happened yet,” said Hammond.

Sources told The Canadian Press that Premier Doug Ford would announce a new four-week stay-at-home order that would begin on Thursday.

“If there is a stay-at-home order that could be helpful in supporting schools,” said Bischof. “If the idea is to prioritize keeping schools open there are ways that that needs to be done and it’s not just by hoping that schools will be safe when they’re clearly not.”

Ontario reported 416 new cases of COVID-19 among school-aged children on Wednesday. There were 118 new cases among children aged four to eight, 158 among children aged nine to 13, and 140 among teens between the ages of 14 and 17.

Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents non-educational staff, said that even with schools closed to in-class learning employees could still be at risk.

“We had seven out of eight custodians (in Thunder Bay, Ont.) contract COVID-19 while not a single student was in the school, yet they still had the (personal-protective equipment), they still were following all of the precautions,” said Walton of the last time Ontario closed schools after the winter holidays. 

“This idea that if schools are closed everyone is safe and nothing is going to happen is not truthful.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

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