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.
Ms. Stiles notes in the letter to Paul Dubé that the Ombudsman’s purview includes school boards, and 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 reopening of schools will happen,” Ms. Stiles wrote. “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.”
Mr. Dubé’s office could not immediately provide comment on the NDP’s request.
With just days to go before classes start, the Ford government has faced increasing pressure over its COVID-19 pandemic 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, although 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 in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Premier Doug Ford has defended his plan repeatedly in recent weeks, calling it the best in the country, and something that was created in consultation with experts.
Asked for his reaction to the NDP request on Wednesday, Mr. 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 [have].”
Mr. 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 Mr. Ford’s back-to-school plan. They alleged it violates provincial workplace laws and want a series of changes made 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 coronavirus 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.
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