The Ontario government began vaccinating vulnerable Canadians against COVID-19 in December 2020. The province set out a three-phase vaccination plan providing a schedule of when, approximately, Ontarians would get their shot based on certain factors. Phase I included the following groups:

  • residents and staff of long-term care homes
  • health care workers
  • adults 80 years of age and older
  • adults in First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations
  • adult chronic home care recipients

However, one group missing from the first phase of inoculations was teachers. As the numbers have started to climb, with more and more outbreaks occurring in schools across Ontario, teachers’ unions are demanding vaccine priority for their staff.

Ontario Decided to Keep Most Schools Open in Winter 2021

As COVID-19 numbers were increasing, after the winter holidays, the province decided to keep schools closed until late January. Many students went back to school when schools reopened. In February 2021, asymptomatic testing in schools showed a low number of COVID-19 cases. From late January until early April, some schools were closed for short intervals, because some educational staff and students contracted the COVID-19 virus. We have now entered Phase II of the Ontario vaccination plan. So, what is the plan for teachers during this phase?

Phase II Expands Eligibility; Does Not Specifically Include Teachers

Phase II of the Ontario vaccination plan started in April 2021. Initially, phase II of the Ontario plan did not specifically name teachers in their inclusion criteria. The parties originally named in the phase II plan included:

  • Adults aged 60 to 79, in 5-year increments;
  • Those who reside or work in high-risk congregate settings, including shelters and community living;
  • Individuals with high-risk chronic conditions and their caregivers;
  • Those who cannot work from home; and
  • Other at-risk populations.

However, in late March, the Ontario Public School Board Association (OPSBA) called on the Ontario government to vaccinate education staff against COVID-19. In a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, the OPSBA president stated that the province’s decision to delay spring break until April 12, 2021, gave the province the perfect opportunity to have education workers vaccinated. The calls for education staff to get inoculated were echoed by three teachers’ unions days later.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) stated that their members did not want to jump the queue before more vulnerable populations. However, they wanted to ensure that once those populations have been inoculated, teachers would be next in line.

The President of the OSSTF stated that teachers work in conditions that are often not allowable in many other public places in Ontario. He also voiced concerns that teachers have a particular vulnerability, because “[t]hey often work in classes that are crowded, where there isn’t room for physical distancing, sometimes with students with special needs who aren’t able to wear masks.”

The union further suggested that, as many school-aged children were too young to be eligible for the vaccine, vaccinating teachers would help stop transmissions in school. Further, if teachers and other staff were vaccinated, then it would be more feasible to keep classrooms open. Shortly after the unions’ calls for additional protections for educational staff, the province made several announcements.

New Stay-At-Home Order Mandated for Ontario

The province declared a new emergency and provincewide stay-at-home order that took effect on April 8, 2021. This public health measure was enacted to prevent the further transmission of COVID-19 in Ontario while allowing more Ontarians to become vaccinated.

The province stated that Ontarians should only go out for necessities, including:

  • outdoor exercise or walking pets in the community
  • work that cannot be done remotely
  • child care or school
  • the grocery store or pharmacy
  • health care services (including going to medical appointments or getting vaccinated).

As COVID-19 cases kept growing in Ontario in late March and into early April, some health units in Ontario also decided to close schools and move students to virtual learning. Specifically, Toronto, Peel and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph regions made the decision to close their schools in the first week of April in an attempt to stem outbreaks.

Ontario Announces Vaccine Registration for Education Workers

On April 8, 2021, Ontario announced new measures to protect schools against COVID-19. At the beginning of spring break, which fell on April 12, the government of Ontario began offering registration for vaccinations to education workers. In other words, teachers have now become one of the priority populations to be vaccinated in phase II of the vaccination plan.

All Ontario Schools Moving to Remote Learning After Spring Break

On April 12, the province also announced that it had made the difficult decision to move elementary and secondary schools to remote learning following the April break. The province cited the rapidly deteriorating situation, with a record number of COVID cases and hospital admissions, as the reason it made this decision. However, child care for non-school-aged children will remain open. Private schools not observing the April Break will be required to transition to remote classes by April 15th.

In a statemet, the Minister of Education said:

This was not a decision we made lightly, as we know how critical schools are to Ontario students. Our priority has always been to keep schools open, however sharply rising community transmission can put our schools and Ontario families at risk. While Ontario’s plan has kept schools safe, as confirmed by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, we are taking decisive and preventative action today to ensure students can safely return to learning in our schools.

With educators becoming a priority group for vaccinations and most schools remaining closed for the foreseeable future, the hope is that both students and teachers will be in a much safer position when classes resume.

For advice on employee rights, employer liability and other employment or labour law matters, contact the offices of Toronto employment lawyers Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP. We regularly advise workplace parties on a wide range of legal workplace issues. Contact us online or by phone at 416-364-9599 to schedule a consultation.