Questions raised about new support staff hiring for Ontario schools reopening amid COVID-19 pandemic

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Specifics on hires for Ontario school reopening unclear'
Coronavirus: Specifics on hires for Ontario school reopening unclear
WATCH ABOVE: In a matter of days, schools will reopen for tens of thousands of Ontario students. Education Minister Stephen Lecce says hundreds of new staff have been hired to keep classrooms safe, but when pressed for specifics the ministry is coming up short. Travis Dhanraj reports – Feb 5, 2021

The Ontario Ministry of Education is facing questions about the hiring of additional support staff to keep Ontario schools safe during their reopening amid the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The questions come after Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s repeated claims that specific thresholds have been met for hiring.

During recent news conferences, including Wednesday, Lecce claimed numerous times the government has hired hundreds of new custodians, teachers and additional public health nurses to support schools.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Ontario education minister announces $381 million in health and safety measures funding for schools'
Coronavirus: Ontario education minister announces $381 million in health and safety measures funding for schools

Global News was able to confirm some new hires, however, the ministry was not able to point to any proof that the targets set have been met.

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“To combat COVID-19, our government has taken action to support our school board partners every step of the way with funding to support the hiring of 3,400 new teachers to reduce class sizes with an anticipated 890 more, 1,400 custodians with an anticipated 800 more, and 623 public health nurses to support our schools,” Caitlin Clark, Lecce’s spokesperson, told Global News in a statement.

But Laura Walton, with CUPE, a union that represents support staff including early childhood educators, custodians and others, said, “I think the proof is in the statement itself. Providing funds to hire is much different than when the minister stands up and says, ‘We have hired.’ Language matters,” she said.

The union filed a freedom of information request in an attempt to gain access to specifics on where additional staff have been hired but its request was denied, with the government citing cabinet confidentiality.

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“We requested an outline of how many hires per school board had happened — actual hires and in what capacity and we put that in prior to Christmas. We received a response two days ago that that information would not be coming to us because it was an issue of cabinet,” Walton said.

“Those that have nothing to hide, hide nothing.”

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When Global News asked for more specifics on hires, government officials also advised a freedom of information act should be filed.

Walton also said CUPE has no internal information on new hires, saying, “We would know, we would see, we would hear from our folks but what we are hearing from folks is that that is not the case.”

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said she’s concerned the government doesn’t seem to be closely tracking hires.

“The fact that they don’t know is deeply troubling. If they don’t know they shouldn’t be misleading Ontarians with these numbers that they are coming up with that are clearly not based in reality,” she said.

“Here we are in a pandemic and if there was ever a time when transparency and accountability and clear communication mattered, it’s now.”

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Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer, confirmed that “Toronto Public Health, with the financial support of the provincial government, has increased the number of nurses supporting schools to 194 as of February 4, 2021.”

But Dubey did not provide information on whether those newly hired nurses have only been assigned to support schools or have other duties as well.

Global News also reached out to various school boards in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area for information on additional hires but did not receive comment by publication time.

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