Education critic says lack of COVID reporting in special education classes a failure in transparency

"We've seen this government really fail and fall down on the job providing transparency."

Ontario’s education critic says the provincial government’s failure to report COVID cases and outbreaks within schools only open for special education is a lapse in transparency.

On Tuesday morning, Barrie 360 reported the Education Ministry is not disclosing those outbreaks and cases among special education students and staff within Simcoe-Muskoka on its website, despite the local health unit confirming two recent outbreaks. The NDP’s education critic, Marit Stiles, told Barrie 360 this is the latest in a series of failures to keep the public informed. “I understand the ministry saying they don’t want to disclose in cases like this, because they’re small numbers, and there are privacy issues. But the problem we have is that we also need to know what’s happening in terms of cases and outbreaks,” she said. “We’ve seen this government really fail and fall down on the job providing transparency, clear communication, and data to Ontarians. And I think that’s where they’re failing again here, so I’m not surprised that a lot of families are feeling like perhaps they’ve been left in the dark here. And I would expect better from the government.”

RELATED: “WE HAVE CRAZY OUTBREAKS HAPPENING. AND NONE OF IT IS REPORTED.” EDUCATION MINISTRY ACCUSED OF NOT REPORTING COVID CASES IN SPECIAL NEEDS SETTINGS

An anonymous educator working in the region told Barrie 360 the situation has led to a large number of stress leaves, absences, and vacancies at schools across the province. Stiles agreed with this sentiment. “That’s definitely what I’ve been hearing from all across the province; education workers, the staff on the frontline are exhausted, they’re stressed, the government has not provided any kind of training,” she commented. “We’re seeing a lot of people who’ve been on leave, a lot of people who are really at their wit’s end.”

Given the apparent lack of transparency from the provincial government, Stiles questioned whether parents could trust the Education Ministry when it says schools are safe. “I think the government does them a disservice when they don’t share that information,” Stiles said. “Everybody is tired of this, but they’re trying to still do the best that they can and government needs to step up and provide better transparency, better accountability so that Ontarians do have that trust that’s absolutely crucial if we’re going to fight COVID.”

Stiles says if the provincial government is to remedy this, asymptomatic testing needs to be introduced on a broad scale. “We’ve had this problem since school first came back in September. The government was slow to roll out any kind of testing in schools, and testing generally,” she said. “We have some testing in place, but we need broader asymptomatic testing in school, so we know what’s going on. But at the end of the day, if the government isn’t sharing that information, then we’ve got a problem. And I think parents and staff are a bit in the dark now. And we need to do better.”

The President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario recently penned a letter to the Ministry of Education, calling on the government to provide emergency funding for schools open to special needs students. The ETFO’s Sam Hammond says this funding would go towards reducing class sizes, providing PPEs for educators, and the deployment of air filtration systems for all classrooms. Hammond says, despite promises to the contrary, the provincial government has yet to put enhanced safety measures in place. “Despite the increased risk of transmission highlighted by the government’s own data, the government has yet to implement additional protections for students, educators, and other staff currently working in schools,” said Hammond in the letter. “The Ministry of Education has not provided clear direction to school boards across the province about which special education program should continue to operate in-person.”

On Tuesday, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union local 330 out of Barrie indicated an educational assistant has tested positive for COVID-19 amid an outbreak at a Barrie high school, Bear Creek Secondary. The health unit continues to confirm two outbreaks at schools within Simcoe and Muskoka, one elementary school and one high school, but otherwise has not named a location.