TORONTO — A coalition of Ontario educators says substitute teachers are concerned about health and safety risks related to working in multiple schools as they prepare to return to classrooms in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ontario Education Workers United, an organization made up of high school teachers, is the latest to sound the alarm over the Ontario government’s back-to-school plan, which has also drawn criticism from teachers’ unions as well as some parents and students.
The plan, announced weeks before the school year is set to begin, allows elementary students and many high school students to be in class five days a week in standard class sizes.
Occasional workers have been left out of the conversation on how to safely reopen schools, the coalition said.
“We have been hearing a lot from occasional workers that they are very worried and feel unseen in this whole process,” said James Campbell, one of the group’s organizers.
“They are often the most precarious of all educational workers because they are often earlier in their career and don’t always have permanent contracts.”
Salima Kassam, a supply teacher working within the Toronto District School Board, says many substitute educators find themselves forced to take up short-term contractual work in different schools to make ends meet.
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In the past year alone, Kassam said she has worked at four schools within the TDSB in short-term contract positions. She said COVID-19 will leave her in a precarious position as she can’t afford to turn down work, which in turn could put her at greater risk of contracting the virus.
“This creates an incredibly dangerous situation for precarious education workers as well as students and their families,” she said.
“I am extremely concerned and outraged at the lack of direction from the Ministry of Education with only two weeks to the start of the school year.”
Like other contractual teachers, she says she does not know what to expect in the fall as teachers wait for more concrete information on how workers and students will be protected.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said earlier this week that school boards have been made aware supply teachers need to focus on one school in order to minimize the contact between students and staff.
“We’ve allocated $10 million to do professional development and training for health and safety in the context of how to manage protocols and how to implement them for all teachers, full-time and likewise occasional teachers and supply teachers,” he said in a news conference Monday.
“That is the type of proactive thinking that the government has put in to insure everyone who walks into our schools that is an educator or staff member… knows the school boards are working hard to minimize contact.”