A student peers through the window of a school bus as he arrives at the Bancroft Elementary School in Montreal, on August 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Ontario’s four major teachers’ unions are calling on the provincial government to develop “specific benchmarks” that would trigger any moves between virtual and in-person learning, saying that “a clear and consistent plan will reduce the chaos and confusion.”

The call to action comes one day after Premier Doug Ford extended virtual learning for all students in southern Ontario until Jan. 25.

Elementary students were scheduled to return to the classrooms on Jan. 11, but due to a rise in COVID-19 infections and deaths, the government decided to extend the remote learning period. Students in northern Ontario will, however, return to class on that date.

"With the public health trends where they are across the province, our priority remains keeping students, teachers, school staff, and all Ontarians safe,” Ford said in a written statement issued Thursday. "We have to get the numbers down and today's measures will help us continue to stop the spread of this deadly virus."

In a letter released on Friday, the unions said the government should convene an advisory table comprising of all education stakeholders and union representatives to “develop a clear action plan for Ontario’s return to schools.”

“Specific benchmarks must be in place for triggering any moves between virtual and face-to-face learning, benchmarks that recognize the different needs of all students,” the letter said. “The Ford government cannot continue to abdicate its responsibility.”

“Establishing a clear and consistent plan will reduce the chaos and confusion caused by this government’s failure to respond appropriately to this pandemic.”

The letter was sent by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO), and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO).

On Thursday, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health hinted that further measures were going to be taken before schools reopened to in-class learning, although he did not say exactly what parents, students or educators should expect.

“I want to put some more steps and protection in place,” he said.

“I know that the minister will probably be making some comments coming up in the next day or two about what further he is going to do, and so I'm not going to preempt him by what his comments are in some of those areas.”

The teachers’ unions said they hope the government takes the next two weeks to “immediately implement the necessary measures to ensure a safe return to in-person learning is possible.”

The letter lists a number of measures that could be taken, including reducing class sizes, improving of ventilation, enhanced sanitation and cleaning, and the introduction of broad, school-based asymptomatic testing.

“As COVID-19 numbers continue to surge, it has become abundantly clear that a new plan is needed for Ontario’s publicly-funded education system, one that prioritizes community safety, is transparent, evidence-informed, and focuses on implementing new safety measures in Ontario’s schools,” they said.

“In addition, for those families that are struggling with balancing work obligations with caring for their children at home, we call on the Ford government to provide immediate assistance for all families who require emergency child care or income support during this lockdown period.”

The unions also ask for a “specific vaccination plan” that explains when and how teachers and education workers will get the shot.

Ontario has been under a province-wide lockdown since Dec. 26. Speaking to reporters on Friday after revealing more than 4,200 new cases of COVID-19, the premier warned that “more extreme measures” could be coming.