A tenuous time for students and parents in the as classes resumed for the first time since March 14 due to the COVID-19 Pandemic was not made easier this week due to acrimonious press releases between the local branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation(OSSTF) and the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board.
On Wednesday, OSSTF District 29 President Scott Marshall claimed in a press release the HPEDSB were showing a “stunning lack of compliance” with the Ministry of Education return to school guidelines by allowing students in Grades 4-12 who refuse to wear a mask will continue to be permitted to remain in their classes.
“This decision, contrary to the advice of the Hospital for Sick Children and the medical community, raises serious concerns regarding the health and well-being of students and adults in our schools as we reopen classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Marshall said. “We believe that students, who refuse to wear a mask, unless there is a valid medical concern, should be offered alternative spaces for education, such as within our new Virtual Learning School, rather than expose their peers and countless others to potential infections.”
Marshall added that OSSTF member’s preference have always been to work with the school board to put in place the necessary protections that would allow the safe return to schools for all.
“We call on our trustees and Board senior administration to reconsider this directive and replace it with one that, at a minimum, adheres to the Ministry guidelines regarding mandatory masks in schools and ensures the safest conditions for students, staff, and their families,” the union head stated.
On Thursday HPEDSB responded to the message from the OSSTF president by saying the claims are baseless and without factual merit
“The HPEDSB is in the regrettable position of having to respond to the recent media statement by the local OSSTF’s District 29 president,” Director of Education Sean Monteith in a statement. “In that public statement, HPEDSB is accused of being in non-compliance with Ministry of Education directives, creating a “negligent policy” that, in fact, doesn’t exist, and not putting in place the “necessary protections” for all students and staff. These claims are baseless and without factual merit.”
Ultimately, the Ministry of Labour was part of an investigative conversation with school board officials and the complainant OSSTF District 29 leadership. Ministry of Labour officials determined that HPEDSB is in full compliance with public health and Ministry of Education directives, and the complaint did not require further investigation.
In the response from the Board of Ed., HPEDSB said it considers its “responsibility to its students, staff and their families its highest priority. The care and attention to detail to meet all necessary requirements to ensure safe and healthy learning and working environments has been unprecedented this year in anticipation of this first day of school for students.”
“We will be encouraging reasonable conversations with students choosing not to wear a mask,” said Kerry Donnell, Communications and Privacy Manager with HPEDSB. “This may include calling home to have a meaningful conversation with the parent/guardian. If a student refuses to wear a mask and a teacher/worker cannot be 2 metres from that student, the teacher/worker will continue to take reasonable precautions by adding PPE, such as a face shield. Additional actions may include changing the classroom seating plan to create 2 metres between the non-mask-wearing student and the nearest person in the classroom.”
The HPEDSB said it will continue to focus on students, their families and staff through a smooth, calm and measured reentry to schools. The priority of ensuring a “kids first” approach remains the key focus.