Infrastructure failings mean Ontario schools are primed for spreading disease, teachers warn

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Maria Vamvalis' grade eight classroom is on the third floor of a building built in the 1970s. She has been told to expect 34 students this September, and struggles to imagine how physical distancing will take place when she estimates her classroom is only 500 square feet. 

Further complicating her and her students' ability to physically distance is the lack of individual desks. Instead, Vamvalis' classroom only has shared tables.

Every school has different furniture, but in recent years some classrooms have intentionally moved away from individual desks towards shared tables in the interest of fostering collaborative learning environments, said one York region teacher who shares Vamvalis' concern.   

The windows on Vamvalis' floor do not open, and ventilation is poor. Vamvalis lives with a chronic lung condition, and the air quality in her school has always exacerbated the problem. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked with the school's caretakers to try to improve the ventilation through regular filter changes with little success. 

"Many teachers will talk to you about ventilation, and a number of us will report that we can't quite trace it, but we don't feel well. They're just not the healthiest buildings," she said. 

While Vamvalis has been on leave for the last two years while studying for her PhD, she has been teaching for 19 years. 

Ontario teachers say there is an endless list of ongoing infrastructural deficiencies that easily poke holes in the provincial government's plans for a safe re-opening of schools. 

These are just some of their concerns: poor ventilation; windows that do not open or, if they do, open only an inch or two; sinks that only offer cold water and/or have no temperature control for effective hand washing; a lack of individual desks for distancing purposes; classrooms that get unbearably hot in September and June and will make mask-wearing more difficult; and classrooms and common spaces that will not accommodate physical distancing. 

Infrastructural issues represent one concern teachers shared with rabble.ca through the "(Un)Safe September" call-out and a series of interviews. Many of these interviews have been anonymized due to teachers' discomfort around criticizing their working conditions without permission from their employers. Some teachers also did not want their students to recognize their names and have their comments add to students' anxiety about returning to the classroom. 

Not all of these issues are shared across schools. But the lack of specific parameters from the provincial government has insufficiently addressed the wide variety of infrastructural contexts facing teachers across the province, said one Belleville elementary teacher. 

Liz Stuart, president and spokesperson for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Federation, said many of the infrastructural issues being highlighted now because of the pandemic are the result of chronic underfunding. 

"There's not enough dollars to take care of a backlog of school repairs," she said. 

As it stands now, Stuart said she does not believe schools have the infrastructure in place to be able to properly adhere to safety guidelines and ensure everyone's safe and comfortable return. 

"In defence of school boards, in the interest of ensuring they had adequate programs, they would steal from Peter to pay Paul. They would take from the maintenance budget to make sure they could run a program. Even with the best of intentions, these things happen with the chronic underfunding," said Stuart. 

An elementary level special education teacher from Ottawa felt frustrated that instead of having a solid plan from the outset, Ontario's government appears to be responding to issues as they draw public criticism, creating a plan that she describes as piecemeal. 

"My gut tells me that they're manufacturing a crisis," she said. 

The Ontario Ministry of Education did not respond to questions about infrastructural concerns. 

In response to well publicized concerns over poor ventilation in many older public schools, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce recently announced his government has "unlocked" $500 million in funding to improve air quality and physical distancing capabilities, with an additional $50 million to upgrade HVAC systems. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), good quality and well maintained ventilation systems can help reduce the spread of the coronavirus indoors. To improve indoor air quality, the WHO recommends heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems be regularly cleaned, use high efficiency filters, introduce as much outside "new" air into the system as possible, and rely less on recirculated air. 

"Big money announcements are great, but what I love is when people break that money down and you see it's not actually that much," said the Ottawa teacher. 

Considering that as of 2018-19 there were 4,828 public schools in Ontario, the $50 million for HVAC upgrades would amount to roughly $10,350 per school. 

Four teachers rabble.ca spoke to doubt that necessary HVAC maintenance would be done before schools reopen in just three weeks. 

Historical cuts to education workers included custodial and caretaking staff, Stuart noted, contributing to a slow pace of maintenance that creates an extensive backlog of repairs. This is not for a lack of effort by custodians, she said, but is simply the result of an understaffed and overworked department. 

"I know we'll have a leak in the ceiling, but the panels just won't be replaced, so now we have holes in our ceiling. There's things that are just never fixed like doorknobs and desks," said one teacher who works at an adult high school in Toronto.   

Existing infrastructural issues are only a part of the problem. Schools are not typically designed to prevent the spread of disease, and teachers described their schools as "germ factories," "petri dishes," and said that it was par for the course that they would get a cold or flu every fall. 

A lack of hand washing stations was something Stuart pointed out as posing a problem for maintaining health recommendations. 

Without additional sinks, students needing to regularly wash their hands raises the potential for crowded washrooms. 

The Ottawa teacher said that in her school one of the primary washrooms is in the front lobby of the school, not easily in view of the classrooms. She has been instructed by her board to limit the number of students in the bathrooms at once, though fears this will be very difficult to manage.

One teacher from Durham said that while she is lucky to have a sink in her classroom, it has no hot water. She also said her children's school only has running water in its two bathrooms shared by 650 students. 

The Ottawa teacher is also concerned about ventilation in her classroom, particularly because with her specific group of students, leaving the door open for more air flow -- as recommended by some experts -- is not a reasonable option. 

The teacher said she's heard from friends and colleagues from other schools in more affluent neighbourhoods that parent councils are offering to pay for UV air filtration systems for every classroom. 

"There's going to be this divide between the haves and have-nots," she said.  

Stuart and each of the five teachers rabble.ca spoke to called for more specific parameters from the province to address different infrastructural needs, and Stuart said her union is lobbying the government on this issue as well. 

"There's an endless list of things our members are raising with us," said Stuart. Many of the concerns, she said, are about keeping students safe and maintaining their mental health through a stressful situation. 

But: "Frankly, teachers are people too. How do they keep themselves safe?"

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Ivan Aleksic/Unsplash

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