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Teachers' unions allege plan breaks provincial law as province unlocks $500M in reserve funds

Last Updated Aug 13, 2020 at 6:58 pm EDT

Tensions escalated between the Ontario government and teachers’ unions Thursday, as the province rushed to free up money to allow boards to address pandemic safety concerns just weeks before schools are set to reopen.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said school boards will be allowed to access $500 million of their own reserve funds to achieve physical distancing in classrooms. The government will also spend $50 million to update school ventilation systems, and another $18 million to hire principals and support staff to administer online learning.

Lecce stressed that the province is making moves to provide more support and flexibility to school boards and keep kids safe.

“We’re taking action,” he said. “One-time, temporary, targeted, timely action to ensure students are safe, and to respond to this generational challenge together.”

Lecce said the funds the government will now allow the boards to access are “rainy day” savings that can help immediately.

“They’re literally sitting there, they’re cash on hand, they can be utilized,” Lecce said, adding four boards that don’t have reserves will receive funding from the government.

“We face a very difficult time, adversity in our economy and our society, and in the health of our children,” he said. “Now is the time to put those tax dollars, respectfully, to work.”

The new spending commitments come just weeks after the province unveiled its back-to-school plan, which has angered unions and worried some parents who have been asking the government to lower class sizes at the elementary level.

The 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.

The funding announcement also came shortly after Ontario’s four major teachers’ unions released a letter alleging the province’s back-to-school plan violates its own occupational health and safety legislation.

The letter states that the province is in the midst of a global pandemic, with no conclusive evidence on how COVID-19 infects children or the rate at which they transmit the disease.

“Absent scientific consensus on significant aspects of COVID-19’s biology or epidemiology, Ontario is obliged … to follow the precautionary principle and implement all reasonable measures necessary to reduce the risk that COVID-19 poses to our members’ health and safety in the workplace,” the unions’ letter states.

The letter alleges the provincial plan fails to provide adequate health and safety protections such as smaller class sizes, minimal measurable standards for ventilation in schools and mandatory masking for younger children.

The unions – the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation – together represent more than 190,000 teachers and education workers.

They have asked for a meeting with the minister of labour and representatives to discuss the issue by next Friday, Aug. 21.

Asked about the unions’ letter Thursday, Lecce said the government’s plan has been endorsed by the province’s top doctor.

“The ultimate decision point on safety is made by our medical leaders,” he said.

The province’s chief medical officer of health said he supported the additional measures announced Thursday and – while it is impossible to eliminate all risk – the plan is safe.

“If it was a risk I would not recommend schools be reopened,” Dr. David Williams said.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the government announcement passes the buck entirely to local school boards.

“Everyone has been telling (the government) for months that they are on the wrong track,” he said in a statement. “Now with just weeks to go, boards are expected to upgrade their ventilation systems and find adequate spaces that are safe for our children to learn.”

Ontario NDP Health critic France Gelinas said the Progressive Conservative government’s announcement will offer no comfort at all to parents, school staff and students who are anxious about returning to class.

Watch the education minister’s full announcement below.