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An Ontario school board has told its teachers that they must take unpaid leave, use vacation time, resign or retire if they refuse to work because of an underlying medical condition that places them at high risk if they contract COVID-19.

Union representatives said the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board’s pandemic leave guidelines are forcing teachers to choose between their personal and family health and their livelihoods, less than a month before schools reopen in September. They haven’t heard of other school boards adopting this approach, and said the lack of clear guidelines from the Ontario Ministry of Education is creating confusion for teachers across the province.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce had previously recognized that some educators would be unable to teach in-person because of pre-existing health conditions. In his July 30 news conference revealing back-to-school plans for Ontario, he said they should be asked to teach online instead, providing lessons to high-school students learning under an adapted model, or to students who have chosen to pursue their full 2020-21 studies online.

But on Wednesday, Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Mr. Lecce, said “parents expect educators to return to work in September, knowing that if they are sick, they benefit from the most generous sick leave program in Canada for teachers and education workers.”

The provincial sick leave for public education workers stands at 11 full salary days a year, and 120 short-term leave days paid at 90 per cent of salary.

The Dufferin-Peel board sent a document outlining return-to-work guidelines to its staff this week. The chart provides a list of scenarios with matching forms of absence that its nearly 6,500 elementary and secondary teachers are eligible for.

The document said employees who do not want to work because they live with a person at high risk of contracting the coronavirus, or because they need to provide care or assistance to a parent or child during the pandemic, must also take unpaid leave, use vacation time, resign or retire.

Employees who are unwilling to work because of fear of contracting COVID-19 face similar scenarios, but could become eligible for sick leave benefits if “objective medical documentation supports total disability,” the document said.

Only staff who are confirmed positive with COVID-19 and symptomatic, or those who are symptomatic without having been tested, are entitled to sick leave.

In a joint e-mailed statement, Rose Procopio, president of the Dufferin-Peel Elementary Unit, and Maria De Berardinis, president of the Dufferin-Peel Secondary Unit, said the document has caused confusion and anxiety for their members.

“Our members’ rights and safety, as well as the safety of our school communities, are our priorities,” the presidents wrote. “We have contracts that have been ratified by our members, and which clearly identify teachers’ rights to access sick leave and accommodations. We will be doing everything possible to ensure that these rights are upheld.”

Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Union, interpreted the guidelines as a threat.

“It is abhorrent that amidst the heightened anxiety Ontarians are already feeling, school boards would be threatening not only the health of teachers and their families, but also their livelihoods,” Ms. Stuart said.

“The situation speaks to the confusion and inconsistency the government has created by not providing clear leadership and direction.”

In its Aug. 10 memo to staff, the Dufferin-Peel board wrote it has “taken all reasonable precautions to protect our employees from risk in the workplace.” Given this, “it is our expectation that employees will return to work in September with the enhanced safety measures in place and will follow all safety protocol.”

Board spokesperson Bruce Campbell said the board “fully understands and abides by their obligations under the human rights code as it relates to employment accommodation” and follows the Employment Standards Act with respect to employee accommodation.

“There may be circumstances that prevent an employee from physically being present in a school environment,” Mr. Campbell added. “If this is the case, staff will work with them to determine what the appropriate accommodation would look like and will explore [where feasible] alternative work locations.

“In certain circumstances, an unpaid leave of absence is an appropriate accommodation based on an individual’s personal situation.”

Mr. Campbell said that vacation time, retirement or resignation are “not traditionally” used as accommodation measures for staff.

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