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Thomas in The Sun: Ontario’s schools can operate safely despite COVID-19

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas with a Toronto Sun logo.
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In a Toronto Sun Opinion Editorial, OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas discusses the importance of employers and unions working together to ensure that Ontario’s schools operate safely this September. He calls on Premier Ford and Minister Lecce to consult with all players in the education sector on the reopening plan.

“Delaying the start of the school year by a week or two so those consultations are fruitful seems like the correct ounce of prevention that can go a long way towards settling frazzled nerves. Together, we have come too far to let things slip away,” writes Thomas.

“Ontario needs to set an example for students of what effective teamwork looks like. If we work together, listen, communicate, and follow public safety guidelines, we can reduce the risks.”

Read the full article here:

THOMAS: Ontario’s schools can operate safely despite COVID-19

Reopening Ontario’s schools in September is vital to the well-being of our children, and I am pleased to see that the government agrees.

It’s going to take a lot of work in a short period of time to make it happen. But I’m confident that if we work together — unions, the government, public health, school boards and front-line workers — we will find the right path to reopen them as safely as possible.

Schools are places where our children build social skills; where they learn to work together in teams; where they get mental health support and counselling; where they play and explore.

A school is the most influential environment — outside of the home — on a child’s development.

For children living with disabilities and those from low-income communities, our schools offer important resources like food programs, special education services, access to the Internet, and support to meet developmental needs.

For parents, our schools provide a safe space for children to learn while they work or take care of younger ones. School and daycare closures have placed a heavier burden on women in particular over the past four months, as they are often the primary caregivers for their families.

Let’s not forget that schools, church basements and rented halls are also home to adult learning, so it’s imperative that the safety of these students and workers are also included in the mix.

It’s important that we get things back to the ‘new normal,’ but the pandemic has changed what that normal is for years to come.

As we work to get our students and education workers back into the classroom, safety needs to be the top priority. We must remain mindful that schools are also workplaces.

Venturing into this new normal in our education system, the voices of all stakeholders involved must be heard. Employers must listen to the concerns of front-line workers and engage health and safety committees to create both original plans and contingencies if and when an outbreak occurs.

Thought also must be given to the personal circumstances of workers and students.

If there are education workers who have health concerns related to returning to school, such as an autoimmune disorder, accommodations must be made for these workers to contribute in the new normal. If workers live in multi-generational households, extra prudence and precaution must be the guiding principle.

When we think about what the pandemic has taught us, we can look to September’s planned reopening of schools with optimism and confidence. OPSEU has tens of thousands of front-line members who have bravely worked on the front lines in high-risk positions since the start of the pandemic. While one positive test is one too many, only about 300 workers in these high risk, high exposure jobs have so far tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a testament to how risk can be reduced when employers and unions work closely and diligently to protect the health and safety of workers, and the public.

Reopening our schools is a step in the right direction toward supporting the development of Ontario’s students, getting our economy back on track and allowing families and communities to regroup and recover. There will be setbacks, but rather than point fingers, my union and my members are calling on government to do its best to get it right.

To that end we are calling for a brief time-out to allow all the players to be part of a plan that puts health and safety first. Delaying the start of the school year by a week or two so those consultations are fruitful seems like the correct ounce of prevention that can go a long way towards settling frazzled nerves. Together, we have come too far to let things slip away.

Ontario needs to set an example for students of what effective teamwork looks like. If we work together, listen, communicate, and follow public safety guidelines, we can reduce the risks.

This is the most important lesson of all.

So, to Premier Doug Ford and Minister Stephen Lecce, I offer this: Take your foot off the pedal for a couple weeks. Let’s talk and make sure we get it right. Together we are stronger.