Some teachers and education unions are criticizing the Ford government’s decision to delay March break this year as part of its effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday the postponement of the break to the week of April 12 will help limit the gatherings and travel that could fuel the transmission of the virus.
“I recognize this is one more change in a year that has been challenging for so many students and our education staff,” Lecce said. “But it is one made on the best advice of public health officials to keep them safe and to keep our schools open in this province.”
His announcement comes at a time when case numbers are going down in Ontario and the government is allowing some parts of the province to reopen. But public health authorities are also sounding the alarm about a possible third wave of the pandemic driven by virus variants of concern that can spread more easily.
However, Vicki Cocco, an elementary school teacher in Oakville, Ont., told CBC News she and many of her colleagues are facing burnout. She said teachers need time off after spending the past several weeks running remote classes and the delay is not helping.
“In January, I think I worked 10 times harder than I would in the classroom just making sure everyone was online and troubleshooting,” said Cocco.
“We need a break.”
Delay is a relief, parent says
But one parent told CBC Toronto the announcement of the delay came as good news for her family, despite her fear over the emerging variants of the virus.
“It’s a slight disappointment but to be completely honest, from a parental standpoint, I’m relieved,” said Tanya Hayles, founder of a group called Black Moms Connection.
Hayles said she can understand why the provincial government wanted to push back the break given the likelihood of kids and parents using the time off to gather and travel.
“I think it’s a way of … at least trying to get them to be in school for as long as possible before we have maybe a third wave,” Hayles said.
She said it has been a daily “tug of war” trying to decide whether or not to send her son, Jackson, to school. He had attended in-person classes in the fall. But now with the new coronavirus variants emerging in the province, Hayles said the decision to send her child back to school is even more difficult.
“He’s been locked up since December … It would have been nice to give him [March break] but if we have to wait a month for it to be safer, then I’m all for it.”
Students in three COVID-19 hot spots — Toronto, Peel Region and York Region — will be the last in the province to return to classrooms on Feb. 16.
The province’s largest education union, the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, the association representing public school boards, and the Ontario New Democrats had all asked for the March break to go ahead as planned, saying families, students and teachers needed it.
Four teachers’ unions — the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation — decried the postponement in a joint statement Thursday and called on the government to reverse the move.
“The government’s decision to postpone March break does not take into consideration the mental health and well-being of those involved,” the statement said.
The group said going ahead with the plan despite opposition from unions and stakeholders shows a disregard for front-line workers. It also questioned why the Progressive Conservative government is starting to lift restrictions on businesses if there are concerns about travel and gatherings during March break.
School communities grateful to have break, despite delay
The Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents 55,000 CUPE education workers, also criticized the move, saying Lecce has failed to implement other pandemic safety measures like mandatory screening in schools and universal paid sick leave.
“The minister can delay March break and claim he’s doing it in the interest of public health. But if he’s not carrying out the proposals above during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s putting students, workers and families at risk,” union president Laura Walton said in a statement.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath echoed those concerns, saying the government should do more to make schools safe rather than cancel a much-needed break.
“We have to find a way to give everyone a spring break that’s safe. Just kicking the can down the road isn’t a solution,” Horwath said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said school communities are grateful to have at least a break coming, even if it isn’t at the preferred time.
“We do know that it is important to be following the public health recommendations and if this is going to help us get to the end of the pandemic sooner then this is what we’ll do,” Cathy Abraham, the association’s president, said Thursday.
“We do appreciate getting a break at all, because it has been a challenge for some.”