Dear Minister Lecce and Dr. Kurji,
I am writing to you on behalf of the Board of Trustees of the York Region District School Board, our 128,000 students and their families and over 19,000 staff members. We are very concerned about the rising number of COVID-19 variant cases in Ontario, and specifically York Region. According to letters issued to families from York Region Public Health, “they are becoming the dominant strain in the community.”
Our education workers are on the front line every day, in classrooms supporting student learning and well-being. Despite adhering to all health and safety guidelines, we continue to see outbreaks occurring in our schools every week, and increasing numbers of classrooms required to self-isolate. Our students and staff members are increasingly reporting anxiety about attendance in face-to-face learning during this third wave of COVID-19. As Premier Ford stated on April 6, 2021, York Region is among communities, along with Peel Region and Toronto considered an “inferno.” Not having safety measures aligned with our neighbours, but comparisons in case counts and context are contributing to loss of public confidence in the safety of our schools. We all want schools to be open, we know they are the best place for children to be learning and forming life-long meaningful relationships, but at what cost are we keeping schools open?
We are also seeing individuals develop more serious symptoms with the variant cases of COVID-19, which now make up the majority, and are very concerned for the health and well-being of our school communities. These cases are frequently resulting in hospitalizations and are having serious, and sometimes fatal, consequences.
In addition, due to the screening and requirements for our staff members to self-isolate, and the challenges in obtaining replacement coverage, we are increasingly reaching the limits set out by the province for the number of contacts for students and staff in our buildings.
While we try to maintain open classrooms and schools and provide as much notice as possible when they close, we are often having to make these decisions and communicate to families with less than 12-24 hours notice. As I’m sure you can appreciate, this can have an effect on the mental health and well-being of students and can cause a lot of stress and challenges for families.
At a time when the Government of Ontario is asking Ontarians to stay at home, our in-school staff continue to attend every day. We appreciate the difficult decisions that are being made in prioritizing vaccinations, however, front-line education workers are performing similar duties to those already eligible for vaccines. It is imperative that the Ontario Government and York Region Public Health coordinate efforts to deliver vaccines to all front-line school staff as soon as possible.
We have in existence a Memorandum of Understanding between York Region District School Board and York Region Public Health to conduct mass immunization. With respect, it is time we put this agreement into practice. We have demonstrated great success in our partnership to conduct testing at school sites; we are equally prepared to mobilize our sites for vaccinations. As mentioned previously, we too want schools to be open and for students to come to school confident that they are safe in our buildings. The most effective way to achieve this is to continue with safety measures and vaccinate school staff.
Given the urgency of our request, I look forward to hearing from you in the very near future.
Chair, York Region District School Board