‘It’s not enough’: OECTA local president says province, public health playing ‘catch up’ against COVID-19

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As asymptomatic testing continues to roll out in our local school boards, our Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Julie Emili said the testing measures are an ‘additional tool’ to try and understand the COVID-19 situation locally – adding that the roll out of the initiative will take some time for school boards to figure out. Though with the process being voluntary for students, concerns are being raised as to whether schools will be able to reach their targeted two per cent of their population as directed by the province; and even more so, as to whether in-school asymptomatic testing will make much of an impact at all in its current state.

Patrick Etmanski is the local president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association. When asked about how the roll out of this asymptomatic testing initiative has been carried out in our local catholic board, Etmanski said the process had been confusing from the get-go, with road blocks and miscommunications creating confusion around where students should go to receive a test.

“As much as the government rolled this out as the ‘savior for one and all’, it really was and remains to be an invitation for people. There’s no teeth behind it – there’s nobody forcing anybody to get a test – it’s just an invitation to go and do that and make it available,” said Etmanski. “The government says 50,000 tests a day are available, and I think about 7,000 is kind of the average going on across the province.”

“It’s been a kind of slow uptake – I’m hoping that’ll change … but at this point, not a whole lot of difference.”

Speaking to public health’s comments that asymptomatic testing serves as an additional tool against COVID-19, Etmanski said he is not optimistic that it will make a world of a difference. When asked about the gaps that still exist in our school board, Etmanski maintained that not much has changed for his membership – despite the messaging he has been hearing from public health, the provincial government and our school boards.

“I spent two hours with a group of teachers on Thursday night who were in tears … worried about going back to a building that’s closed," said Etmanski. “They don’t think anything’s different. Nothing’s changed. When we started in September, when we restarted after Christmas – it’s the same building, same protocols – the only thing that’s changed is that the screening has got a little tighter, and that’s caused a problem for staffing.”

Etmanski referenced the closure of one of the catholic board’s schools last week, as issues with COVID-19 assessment resulted in there not being enough staff to safely deliver programming. Etmanski said with the new screening measures in place, education workers are being ‘screened out’ if they are presenting with one symptom, and issues with teaching staff levels and occasional teachers are creating further difficulties.

“Year over year, in a week we would have had maybe 30 jobs that didn’t get filled due to a lack of occasional teachers … last week or the week before, there were 180. So, it was six times year-over-year what it was last year – it’s incredible, and it’s a problem.”

While the province had announced in early February that teacher candidates in education programs would be able to fill in to meet demand, Etmanski said that program has still not come online and is not expected to make much of a difference when it eventually does.

“A lot of what’s going on is all about publicity; it’s all about getting a message out to the public,” said Etmanski. “Whether or not that message is true, the bottom line is people are believing it. That’s fine, but it’s really not the reality that education workers are seeing in the schools – it’s not the same message that I’m hearing from the people working in the schools when compared to what’s being delivered by public health, the government and school boards.”

Etmanski expressed his frustration with public health’s assurance that asymptomatic testing in schools will take time to be rolled out, as he said the province and public health have been playing catch up since last March when the pandemic began.

“If we would have reduced class sizes and done something real in the beginning, then maybe we wouldn’t be here right now – but here we are … and to hear public health saying, ‘it’s going to take time to roll out’? Thanks for that.”

“Thanks so much – because that doesn’t make those 30 teachers that I talked to on Thursday night feel any better about coming back to school when their school opens.”

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