Thousands of Ontario education workers set to go back to school next week amid a provincewide lockdown are facing impossible choices, a union representing them argued Friday as it warned many don't have proper child-care options available to support their return to work.
Elementary school classes will run remotely from Jan. 4 to Jan. 8 as part of the ongoing effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. But custodial, maintenance and clerical staff are among thousands of workers expected to physically report to work while students take classes online, according to the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
CUPE, which represents a wide variety of education workers, said many of its approximately 20,000 members slated to return to school next week are parents who have been left out of a provision offering child-care services to essential workers.
Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said the situation has left people scrambling.
"Folks are required to be at a brick and mortar place, and there is no place for their five-year-old," Walton said in a phone interview on Friday. "How does this happen?"
Walton said she's hearing concerns from union members across the province whose school boards have asked them to report to work.
Child-care will be available during the lockdown, the government has said, except for the period when elementary-aged children are learning at home.
Exceptions have been made for several categories of workers deemed essential, and the union wants the government to include education workers in that child-care provision, especially if elementary school students are kept out of school for longer than one week.
"I think this really shows yet again the failure of this government to talk to the folks that actually do the work before making their plans," Walton said.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the provision is currently aimed primarily at front-line workers, including those involved in distributing the province's current supply of COVID-19 vaccines.
"The focus of this time limited program is on front line workers saving lives in the second wave," Caitlin Clark said in a statement. "This one-time, preventative, proactive action will ensure that we protect the progress we have made in schools and childcare across Ontario."
Walton said the situation isn't just stressful for parents -- it's potentially dangerous during an increasingly dire wave of COVID-19 infections that prompted the lockdown, which came into effect on Dec. 26.
Workers are now considering asking friends and family members from outside their households to look after their children, creating the risk that the virus could spread.
"There is a public health risk element," Walton said, adding the situation compounds concerns raised earlier in the school year about class sizes. Critics argued the province's decision not to impose caps on elementary school class sizes resulted in large gatherings at odds with rules in effect elsewhere in the province.
Some members are also facing the tough choice of asking their older children to look after their younger siblings, taking time away from their own studies, Walton said.
"I think this puts a real burden on the community with a lack of clear direction," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 1, 2021.