NDP calls on ombudsman to review province's back-to-school plan: Your daily Ontario COVID-19 roundup

NDP calls on ombudsman to review province’s back-to-school plan: Your daily Ontario COVID-19 roundup

The NDP is continuing to voice its dissatisfaction with the province's back-to-school plan and is calling on Ontario's ombudsman to launch a review.

"I’m asking for an urgent and independent review of Ontario’s back-to-school plans to ensure that the province is doing its best to implement the measures necessary to meet the highest standards recommended by the medical, scientific and education experts who care so deeply for Ontario’s students," the party's education critic Marit Stiles wrote in a Sept. 1 letter to Ombudsman Paul Dubé.

Stiles referenced the work of Dubé's office, stating that its "crucial work to improve and adopt best practices in Ontario’s education system has been vital to improving public education."

"Your office also functions as a tool of last resort — and that is why I am writing today," she added.

Stiles said families are "anxious" about reopening plans and are concerned that students and staff won't be able to follow physical distancing guidelines "when school buses will be allowed to carry as many as 70 students at a time and where students spend the day in classes of up to 30 students." Health professionals and the provincial government have repeatedly encouraged people to stay at least two metres away from those who aren't in their social circle and to wear masks when distancing isn't possible. Several school transportation service providers have said all students will be required to wear masks on buses, while others aren't requiring them for kindergarten students. The province is only requiring that students in grades 4 to 12 wear masks on school buses.

Families need "positive reassurance that every possible step necessary for a safe, healthy re-opening of schools will happen," wrote Stiles. "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."

Dubé's office said in a statement that it "is aware of the request from the NDP, and will respond directly to MPP Stiles’ letter once we review it."

The statement went on to say that the office's "administrative oversight includes school boards and the Ministry of Education, and our staff are always available and eager to assist parents and students with complaints about whether policy is being applied fairly and appropriately, and whether their needs are being met. The Ombudsman does not oversee the Executive Branch of government nor does it review its policy choices — these are outside of his mandate."

The office also pointed to a recent newsletter, which said that the ombudsman "does NOT intervene in matters of broad government policy, or complaints about politicians or labour unions. Our role is to resolve individual and systemic problems where the administrative conduct of public sector bodies such as school boards is unfair, unjust, discriminatory, contrary to law or wrong."

Questions about the reopening of schools have been the focus at Premier Doug Ford's daily press conferences, with the premier often touting the province's plan as safe.

"We do have the safest, most cautious plan in the entire country and it’s been vetted by everyone we could possibly think of," said Ford on Wednesday. He was asked about the NDP's call for a review, but deflected and instead talked about his visit to Kensington Community School in Toronto on Tuesday and his government's plan. "We have a great plan, I encourage everyone to bring their kids to school, very simple."

Meanwhile, the premier called the number of Ontarians 19 and under who have tested positive for COVID-19 during the past month — more than 550 — "concerning," when asked by CTV about the figure.

"I just want to make sure that when we go back to school we’re going to have the nurses in the high-priority neighbourhoods and we’re going to be ready, because if I was to sit here ... and say, 'Guess what? There’s no cases,' it’s not the reality," he said. "So we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that we have the safest environment for our kids possible, but we do have to be realistic as well."

War of words with teachers' unions

The battle continued on Wednesday between the premier and teachers' unions. This comes just days after the four major teachers' unions in the province filed an appeal to the Ontario Labour Relations Board over job conditions and their claim that the province's back-to-school plan indicates a "failure to put in place all reasonable precautions for a safe return to school." Recently, opposition parties, parents, academics and epidemiologists have also voiced their disappointment with the province's plan and called for changes including mandated smaller class sizes.

Premier Ford said the government has been consulting with parents and teachers, but again separated educators from union leaders, calling teachers "champions" and saying he has "all the confidence in the world" in them.

"If you’re asking me who am I going to listen to, some of the best doctors, health minds, science in the country or some head of some teachers' union that wants to fight with every single government that God ever created," he said, going on to accuse the unions of "playing politics."

"I have an idea, why don’t they try to help out, why don’t they pitch in, why don’t they be positive instead of painting a picture of an apocalypse?" said Ford.

"I think the parents would rather us listen to the doctors opposed to some guy with a degree in English literature, (who) thinks he’s a doctor," the premier said, referring to Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.

Bischof responded to the premier's comments in a statement to QP Briefing.

"We first offered to assist the Ministry of Education on March 12, the day the closures were announced. They have ignored us ever since.  To be clear, I cited my academic background as the reason I listen to the medical experts rather than substitute my own judgment. When the SickKids report says we should limit class size as the 'priority strategy' for a safe return, I'd prefer that the premier not substitute his own judgment for theirs either," Bischof stated.

Meanwhile, the Green Party of Ontario criticized the premier for his remarks.

"Instead of reducing class sizes, the premier is continuing his attack on union leaders," said Deputy Leader Abhijeet Manay. "Ford continues to hope that by dividing he can conquer the very educational workers that are putting themselves in harm's way to head back into Ontario classes."

Manay said the premier should instead focus on "providing the resources needed for smaller class sizes."

Help for small businesses

Aug. 31 marked the end of the provincial government's pause on evictions of commercial tenants and the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program.

The Ontario government passed legislation in June to halt evictions of businesses eligible for CECRA until the end of August. Meanwhile, under CECRA, the provincial and federal governments offered to cover 50 per cent of a business tenant's rent, while the tenant paid 25 per cent and the landlord was asked to forgive the remaining 25 per cent.

Asked about plans to extend both of these, Ford didn't comment on his government's evictions ban but said he's been in talks with the federal government about CECRA.

"We can’t do it alone. We need the fed government’s support, so it’s on the table right now," he said. "Our goal is to get everybody back on their feet so they can self-sustain themselves or business and move forward. We’re in discussions right now regarding that."

The Globe and Mail reported Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland as saying earlier this week, "We’re going to have more to say about [rent relief] very soon."

Ford tries to reassure transit riders

As schools get ready to reopen and parents across the province also prepare to return to work, Premier Ford and several MPPs tried to reassure Ontarians that public transit is safe to use.

"I just took the GO train here ... it was a real great experience, it was clean, it was safe, it was reliable," said Ford.

He said Ontarians are in "good hands" with the province's transit agencies.

"They’re working incredibly hard to make sure each and every rider has a safe experience because many people rely on the essential service and ensuring a safe public transit experience is even more important now that people are returning to work and our kids are returning to school," Ford said.

But some journalists pointed out that their experiences on transit have been different from what the premier described.

Sneh Duggal

Reporter, Queen's Park Briefing

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