TORONTO — Ontario’s ombudsman must review the government’s back-to-school plan to ensure it’s living up to vital safety standards, the province’s official Opposition said in a formal request for the watchdog to investigate the reopening strategy.
The New Democrats’ education critic, Marit Stiles, wrote in the letter released Wednesday that she wants the ombudsman to determine if measures are in place to meet standards recommended by experts.
Stiles notes in the letter to Paul Dube that the ombudsman’s purview includes school boards, and she argues an urgent investigation is required to address the “confusion or anxiety” felt by many.
“(Parents) need positive reassurance that every possible step necessary for a safe, healthy re-opening of schools will happen,” Stiles said in the letter. “Teachers need security that their own health, not to mention that of their students, will not be put at undue risk by going back to physical classrooms.”
Dube’s office said Wednesday afternoon that it is aware of the request and will respond directly to Stiles.
Dube addressed school reopenings in a recent newsletter, saying he is aware that his office will be called upon by parents in the coming weeks and it will look for ways to “exercise our role as an independent, impartial watchdog.”
While he does have oversight of school boards and the Ministry of Education, Dube does not oversee the executive branch of government or review its policy choices, he said.
“Our office does not intervene in matters of broad government policy, or complaints about politicians or labour unions,” he said. “Our role is to resolve individual and systemic problems where the administrative conduct of public sector bodies such as school boards is unfair, unjust, discriminatory, contrary to law or wrong.”
With just days to go before classes start, the Ford government has faced increasing pressure over its COVID-19 back-to-school plan.
School boards, teachers’ unions and some parents have called on the government to mandate smaller class sizes to ensure physical distancing is possible in the classroom — and provide funding to make it happen.
The province’s strategy 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.
Many high schoolers will also be in class full-time, though secondary students at 24 boards across the province will do half of their classes online.
Premier Doug Ford has defended his government’s plan repeatedly in recent weeks, calling it the best in the country and saying it was created in consultation with experts.
Asked for his reaction to the NDP request on Wednesday, Ford instead praised the work of principals in the school system and attacked the province’s teachers’ unions.
“Why don’t they pitch in?” he said of the unions. “Why don’t they be positive instead of painting a picture of apocalypse? The world’s coming to an end. Why don’t they jump in there like the great principals that I’ve talked to?”
Ford also stressed that his government is ready for the return to school beginning next week.
“It’s all hands on deck,” he said. “We have this one. We’re ready.”
Earlier this week, Ontario’s four major teachers’ unions appealed to the province’s labour board about Ford’s back-to-school plan.
They alleged it violates provincial workplace laws and asked for a series of changes to lower class size and address concerns about school ventilation.
The unions have also said the government has not consulted them on the development of their school reopening strategy.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 133 new cases of COVID-19 and no new deaths from the novel coronavirus on Wednesday.
There were also 137 cases newly marked as resolved.
The total number of cases now stands at 42,554, which includes 2,812 deaths and 38,506 cases marked as resolved.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 29 of the province’s 34 public health units are reporting five or fewer new cases, and 21 are reporting none.
The province was able to complete 24,004 tests over the previous day.