Conflict between Ontario government and teachers unions leaves schools in cloud of uncertainty
Ontario students and parents aren’t the only ones with concerns as classes are set to resume this month, as teachers say they’re facing a lot of unknowns because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The uncertainty comes amid an escalating conflict between Premier Doug Ford’s government and four major teachers unions. While many teachers will be holding virtual classes, others are worried about how teaching in classrooms during the pandemic might endanger their health, writes CBC’s Natalie Kalata.
The dispute is headed to the province’s labour board as the unions allege Ontario’s school reopening plan violates its own workplace safety laws. Parents can’t expect teachers to be ready to start virtual programs this month, said Doug Garlick, an elementary school teacher in the Durham District School Board. “I cannot realistically know how that’s going to happen because we don’t know what we’re doing yet,” he said. Garlick, like many teachers in the province, is expected to receive some additional training about online learning this week, but he doesn’t know what it will cover.
While Garlick is among the educators who will be holding classes online, thousands of others in Ontario will be teaching students in person. But in-class learning also has its challenges, said Farzana Karmali, who teaches kindergarten French immersion for the Toronto District School Board. Both students and teachers will be wearing masks to prevent the spread of the virus, among other measures. She questions how she can communicate when much of her face will be hidden. “How will they learn French? How will they see my lips?” Karmali said. “I am confused, scared and I don’t know how this is going to work.”
Ontario’s provincial government said it is “sparing nothing” to keep children safe when schools reopen — and if all the measures fall short, Ford said Monday he will once again shut schools down. The premier added that he couldn’t understand the unions’ perspective. “We have done absolutely everything…. Every idea possible, we’re putting into the classrooms,” he said. “If you compare the report card with all the other provinces, it’s night and day…. The teachers unions just want to fight. They want to fight with everyone,” Ford said.
Ford said he distinguishes between the unions and actual teachers he’s spoken to. He said they are telling him he will “do a great job.” But Karmali is wondering how she, as an individual teacher, is going to deal with students who start showing symptoms. “As a human being, a teacher, it’s my role to be there as the child’s parent. I’m not going to allow the child to throw up and not look after them, for example,” she said. “I know that many parents will feel that going back to school will create a sense of normality for their children, but I don’t know how this is going to be normal.”
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Health Canada changes course on COVID-19 testing at home
Health Canada is willing to consider approving home COVID-19 tests to screen for the virus, a spokesperson for the minister of health told Reuters, in a win for public health experts and doctors who have argued that frequent and inexpensive testing could beat back the pandemic. The department had previously said it was concerned that people might misuse home tests or misinterpret the results. “In response to the evolution of the pandemic, Health Canada is now considering applications for home testing devices for screening purposes,” spokesperson Cole Davidson said in a statement.
Screening tests are meant to monitor large groups of seemingly healthy people for illness, while diagnostic tests investigate symptoms. The change could allow for self-collection, where samples are sent to a lab for processing, and spur the development of new tests to detect the virus at home. Home tests may be more likely to miss positive cases than the laboratory tests. Regulators generally want those errors to be vanishingly rare, since patients who do not realize they are contagious could spread the virus. Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said PCR testing (also known as polymerase chain reaction testing) remains the gold standard. The nose or throat swab test tells health officials if someone has COVID-19.
Advocates argue that cheap, rapid tests could more than make up for any reduced sensitivity if they can be used to test many people daily or weekly, and are very unlikely to miss people who are sick enough to be contagious. Rapid COVID-19 tests similar to home pregnancy tests exist as prototypes in research labs, but until last week none were approved or manufactured at scale. Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a $5 rapid COVID-19 test about the size of a credit card, made by Abbott Laboratories. The test cannot be taken alone, but it can be administered by a wide variety of health-care providers and technicians. Abbott has not applied to sell the device in Canada, public application data shows.
Pregnant Canadian begs for travel exemption to return from Haiti with her children
A pregnant Canadian woman is urging the federal government to rethink its pandemic travel rules to allow her to return to the country to access medical care without leaving her soon-to-be adopted Haitian children behind. The situation is urgent, as in just two weeks Sarah Wallace will be too far along in her pregnancy for major airlines to allow her to fly. Wallace, a midwife, is originally from Devon, Alta., but has lived in Haiti for the better part of 12 years and founded a non-profit in the country that aims to support maternal and infant health.
Wallace had hoped to return to Canada earlier in her pregnancy. First, paperwork delays in Haiti slowed the process, and then she was told by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that her Haitian children can’t return to Canada with her because their adoptions aren’t finalized. While that normally wouldn’t prevent them from travelling to the country, the children don’t qualify as immediate family members under Canada’s COVID-19 travel restrictions. Her case has attracted the interest of Alberta Conservative MP Dane Lloyd, who has contacted Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s office asking that an exception be made so Wallace can obtain the visas she needs for her kids so they can fly back to Canada with her. CBC News has reached out to the immigration minister’s office, and has yet to receive a response.
Wallace and her husband, Jean Pierre Valteau, are legal guardians of two Haitian children and have been working steadily to formalize their adoptions for the last two years; the couple also has a biological son. “I was feeling very hopeful about getting our visas approved, not even considering that we weren’t eligible based on [COVID-19 travel restrictions], because when I look at the current exemptions, it says immediate family, and that includes dependents. I just assumed that we were eligible,” said Wallace, who is seven months pregnant. In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for IRCC said “in this case, the officer reviewing [the] request for exemption from the COVID-19 travel restrictions was not satisfied that the definition of a family member was met.” The IRCC said that for international adoptions, the process must be completed in the child’s home country before the immigration process to Canada can proceed.
Redirect funds from botched volunteer grant program to student aid, NDP says
NDP MP Charlie Angus said the federal government must redirect the $912 million earmarked for a student volunteer grant program to help cash-strapped students pay for tuition. During a news conference in Ottawa, Angus said that since the government never spent the money on the controversial program, the promised funds should be delivered to students struggling to pay off debt or tuition. “With this crisis, I think the prime minister could send a very clear message and say the money that was supposed to be in this bizarre volunteer scheme that they came up with, we could use that to deal with student tuition and I think that would take a lot of pressure off students,” he said.
The Canada student services grant, announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on June 25, was supposed to offer students the means to fund their post-secondary education by volunteering for charities and non-profit groups fighting the pandemic. But the government’s choice of WE Charity to run the program immediately crashed into allegations of a conflict of interest because of Trudeau’s own ties to the charity and those of his then-finance minister, Bill Morneau. Citing the controversy, WE eventually exited the project, which has since been abandoned by the federal government. The ethics commissioner is now investigating both Trudeau and Morneau.
The Canadian Federation of Students is calling for the $912 million to be spent on extending an emergency response benefit for students to December, or on boosting the number and amount of grants available to students. “Most students had their summer job plans affected by the pandemic and the $1,250 a month has not been enough to make up the shortfalls,” said Nicole Brayiannis, the organization’s national deputy chairperson. Payments from the program ended on Aug. 29. CBC News asked government officials whether there will be additional funding for students but has not yet received a response. Trudeau sought and obtained prorogation of Parliament until Sept. 23, which had the effect of shutting down the committees that were probing the WE Charity matter.
Doctor explains why Canada is hedging its bets when it comes to a coronavirus vaccine
Canada has struck deals with four drug companies to procure a potential COVID-19 vaccine, but a doctor said it’s still too early to know what bet will be worth taking. “I think at these early stages, I certainly think we should be reasonably optimistic,” Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist in Toronto, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
U.S. biotech firm Novavax announced Monday it has negotiated an agreement with the federal government to produce 76 million doses of its potential coronavirus vaccine, should it get Health Canada approval. “They do have some encouraging early results. It is a slightly more traditional vaccine. And I think that, you know, as the minister said, they’re hedging their bets,” Gardam said, referring to Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand. Ottawa also has deals with Johnson & Johnson, which was announced Monday, as well as Pfizer and Moderna.
“Betting on multiple horses is a very smart strategy. I’d be very concerned if we only had one vaccine that we were lining up behind. Obviously, you can’t bet on 100 different vaccines. So you have to draw the line somewhere,” Gardam said. “If it turns out a year from now none of these work, then Canada will have completely dropped the ball. If it turns out that all four of them work, then we’ll look like geniuses, right?”
Ottawa restaurants hope safety measures are enough to bring back dine-in customers
Three Ottawa restaurateurs say they’re taking every precautionary measure they can to help customers feel comfortable to return to dining inside, something the businesses rely on to turn a profit. Even as dine-in service has been allowed under Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening, not everyone has been eager to flock back to indoor socializing and there are worries about potential outbreaks. Over the weekend, a Gatineau, Que., restaurant announced five of its employees had tested positive for COVID-19.
“The past few months have been a wild ride to say the least,” said Caroline Cote, who owns two locations of OCCO Kitchen, one of which has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. “Our business downtown really relies on the private and public sector employees around,” she told CBC Radio’s All In A Day in Ottawa. Tourists also make up a significant portion of her business. “With both of those being pretty much non-existent at the moment, it’s been tough,” Cote said.
Sunil Kurich has seen some customers venture inside his restaurant, the Turkish Village, even after losing about 70 per cent of his clientele at the start of the pandemic. “About 15 per cent of the customers are starting to feel comfortable coming back,” he said. Dave Longbottom, who owns Flora Hall Brewing, acknowledges everyone has their own tolerance with risk. “We don’t judge, we’re just trying to demonstrate to our customers that we’re providing a very, very safe environment,” he said. He expects contact tracing will also help contain any potential outbreaks that may be linked back to restaurants and bars and keep customers feeling safe to eat in.
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