Education workers are demanding that the Ford government come up with a plan that ensures custodians, education assistants (EAs), school secretaries and others are able to stay on the job once schools reopen next week, says the union that represents 55,000 education workers in Ontario.

CUPE is warning that the government’s failure to consider the vital role that education workers play in schools, alongside chronic staff shortages and the toll that COVID has taken on these workers, risks throwing students’ education and families’ lives back into chaos if more schools are forced to close due to a lack of support staff.

“Schools can only open and operate safely if education workers are in the buildings. We need these people to provide the important services that support students’ education. Yet education workers haven’t had a voice in schools’ reopening; they aren’t even an afterthought in the government’s plans,” said Laura Walton, President of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

“What is the government’s plan if education assistants contract COVID and can’t come to work? A teacher can’t take over all the duties of an EA; on her own, she can’t toilet a classroom of children with special needs. Or if there’s a single custodian assigned to a school and that custodian gets sick, that school will have to close.

“It’s almost as though the government is relying on the dedication and good will of education workers to come to work when they should stay home, just so that schools can stay open. It’s myopic and dangerous.”

CUPE/OSBCU has always maintained that schools should stay open during the pandemic, provided enough funding, equipment and staffing are in place to make them safe places to learn and work.

Walton pointed out that education workers have been on site and in schools throughout the pandemic and yet “there still aren’t enough HEPA filtration units for every room that’s occupied in a school.” She also raised concerns that education workers have not received any documentation on screening protocols nor received guarantees that the promised non-fit tested N95 masks will be available as of Monday.

Low pay, precarious work and poor working conditions are also exacerbating the shortage of education workers, according to Walton. “We’ve been ringing alarm bells about a staffing crisis since before the pandemic began, and now schools are faced with a lack of people who are healthy, willing and able enough to come into schools to do those jobs.”

“We’ve been clear about what is needed for safe schools,” she concluded. “But at the eleventh hour, the government is changing the goal posts to rush people back into school, when it should be thinking through the implications of its decisions and their impact on all staff and students.”