The Progressive Conservative government is calling on education sector workers including custodial, maintenance, administrative, social work and youth support staff to help out at some of the institutions struggling with staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government announced an emergency order on May 9 to allow school board employees to be "voluntarily redeployed" to congregate care settings like seniors' homes and shelters. On Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce said they had developed a framework with provincial union leaders and trustees' associations for the redeployment of workers. The unions included in the plan are the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, Canadian Union of Public Employees and Education Workers' Alliance of Ontario.
"We put out a call to our education workers to come to the aid of our hospital staff, our long-term care homes, our retirement homes and group homes, our homeless shelters and women’s shelters and other congregate care facilities, and...the response has been overwhelming," said Ford, going on to thank the province's "incredible education workers."
The premier said while the COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult period, "what keeps me going, what has been inspiring to see, is people stepping up, people from every walk of life, from every corner of this province, looking out for each other and doing their part in this fight."
Lecce said the first redeployment is "currently underway" with CUPE Ontario education workers having volunteered to help out at hospitals in Kenora.
"We need people to step up and continue to step up in a big way, to be brave, to be compassionate," said Lecce. "I believe it will help save lives."
The education minister said the government would be launching an online portal later this week that would match a person's skill-set with the opportunities in their communities. The government said school boards and local unions would need to sign an agreement to allow for staff to work outside the board.
"School boards will review applications for volunteers based on their operational requirements," a government backgrounder said. "It may not be feasible for all staff who wish to volunteer to have their request granted."
The government also noted that "staffing needs will vary across the province," adding that redeployed staff could be sent to care settings either with or without active COVID-19 outbreaks.
Eligible staff for the program include those in custodial and maintenance roles, children and youth services, social workers, paraprofessionals, office support staff, and educational assistants — these roles also correspond to the types of positions that would be available in the congregate care settings. The framework states that occasional teachers and casual staff who are currently not working, and possibly receiving federal funding, could also apply. But those currently needed for remote learning are not eligible; this would include instructional and special education teachers and some IT staff.
The program is voluntary, with the framework indicating that workers would keep their employment status along with their salary and benefits. Redeployed staff could also be eligible for a $4 per hour "pandemic pay" increase for frontline workers and a $250 payment if they work more than 100 hours a month, along with free emergency child care.
"We’re encouraging folks to step up and for those that can, they should because as we’ve seen in Kenora...that work is, I think, making a difference," said Lecce, noting that redeployed staff would be trained and provided with personal protective equipment.
Asked whether the redeployment of staff such as custodians could be indicative of school closures being extended beyond May 31, Lecce said "I wouldn’t read into that at all" and that the government would make this decision based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams. He stressed that the redeployment is voluntary and that it can be "terminated at any point by the employee or employer."
Lecce said families and educators can expect an announcement on both the remainder of the school year and on summer learning opportunities by "early next week." He said the government is looking to updated modelling before making a final decision.
"Our duty is to make sure we land in a place that is consistent with the values, I think, of families in this province, which is safety must come first," said Lecce, adding that he will also be speaking with individuals at SickKids Hospital this week "to get more perspective on the way forward."
Photo Credit: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star