Ontario schools need vastly more investment for staffing and supplies to make them safe for students’ return in September, as well as shield them against the effects of a second wave of COVID-19, says the union that represents 55,000 education workers in the province.

Yet the Ford government’s plan for reopening Ontario’s schools drastically underfunds the measures needed to keep students and staff safe, says the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). It is urging the government to heed recommendations from education workers, who have called for a minimum $600,000,000 to fund safe school reopenings in Ontario.

“CUPE members know how schools work. We know that making schools safe comes with costs,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU). “But what we saw in yesterday’s announcement is the government trying to reopen our schools on the cheap.”

Walton contrasted the difference between the union’s and the government’s approach to the role of custodians.

The union calculates that Ontario schools need 4800 new custodians, giving each school an average of one extra custodian to carry out the new daily cleaning tasks meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

The government, on the other hand, plans to hire 900 custodians – less than 20 per cent of CUPE’s recommendation – to provide an average 7.5 hours extra cleaning per school per week.

“Just seven-and-a-half hours per week, in the midst of a pandemic, to carry out all the new cleaning protocols? I don’t think any parent could think that’s sufficient,” observed Walton, pointing out that custodians’ new duties include cleaning washrooms four or more times a day, cleaning playground equipment, sanitizing toys, disinfecting major touch points multiple times per day, and refilling soap dispensers as soon as they’re empty. 

Walton noted that schools will also need more education assistants (EAs), school secretaries, early childhood educators (ECEs), clerical staff, and paraprofessionals to take on most of the measures that will ensure safe and healthy schools from September onwards.

“Clerical staff will be responsible for daily screening and testing for COVID-19, and for liaising with public health and parents if there’s an infection. School secretaries will have to enforce restricted-access policies. EAs will be helping more students catch up after months of not being in class. ECEs will make sure children in full-day kindergarten stay physically distanced and practise good hand hygiene. Students whose mental health has been affected by the school closures and the stress of living through a pandemic will need extra support from social workers and psychologists. And everyone will be watching to make sure students wear masks and use them properly,” she said.

Walton concluded with a message for parents: “It’s not too late to demand the funding for what has to be done to protect students’ health. CUPE members will be calling their MPPs to demand the government provide enough funding to keep students and staff safe when schools re-open. We urge parents to join us in that call.”