Most southern Ontario students are learning from home for at least the next few weeks. But some students with needs have returned to in-class learning. That's raising concerns with educators.
"The Ford government is pleading with everybody to stay home because of the increased numbers and a state of emergency," says Barrie educational assistant Jennifer Coventry. "We're just wondering how our students are allowed to come back."
Coventry is an EA at Innisdale Secondary School in Barrie. Her students are either in the Autism Spectrum Disorder learning or life skills programs.
These students are unable to learn remotely, while some are medically fragile. Many of them are non-verbal and can't express how they're feeling.
The educational assistant says staff are required to be in full PPE. However, these students are not, which she worries could present a risk.
"We're relying on parents and group homes to do the screening before they come to school, and that's it," she says. 'There's no other protocols for us."
According to OPSEU Local 330, there were several outbreaks of COVID-19 just before Christmas in both group homes where students live and in classrooms.
The union requested more safety measures, citing working with children who need personal care or could become aggressive, even spitting and biting.
"All of that where you're in a close proximity and they aren't wearing masks," says OPSEU Local 330 President, Kelly Martin.
"So while wearing our masks and our shield to best protect, there aren't wearing, so that exposure to take home is very, very scary for my members. "
The Simcoe County District School Board says it cannot accommodate the request for additional PPE, stating nothing has changed since September. Staff members are still required to wear medical masks.
Superintendent John Dance says while there can be challenges, educational assistants are "highly trained professionals" who can respond to extraordinary situations.
"They're also part of a team, so its' not as if there's one person there," says Dance.
"It's multiple people in these classes that are working as a team to mitigate challenges."
The board says it will be making one significant change, replacing face shields with goggles. Those should be in the hands of teachers and EAs soon.