Discover more from newsBeyond POLICORNER
School is back, Phillips is out
In this edition: back-to-school in Ontario, the story behind DPCDSB's letter to Lecce, Stamatopoulos on Phillips' big surprise, responding to the winter wallop
It’s Monday, January 17. Welcome to POLICORNER — your insider’s guide to Canadian politics, policy and power. Snowstorms are back, and we are too.
In this 10 minute read, Ontario reveals the Omicron-themed back-to-school plan. The inside scoop on Dufferin-Peel's letter to Lecce. Stamatopoulos speaks on the Friday news dump that left Rod Phillips out of Doug Ford’s cabinet. Plus, the latest on the response to the snowstorm ravaging Ontario.
It’s back-to-school for Ontario’s two-million students. Most schools in the province will reopen to in-person learning tomorrow for the first time since the Omicron-fueled fifth wave forced Premier Doug Ford's government to close them.
The announcement that in-person learning would resume dropped late Monday-night on Twitter. “Public health officials have signed off on the decision,” the Toronto Star’s Robert Benzie — who scooped the decision — tweeted at 8:17 PM. The Premier’s Office confirmed the news later that evening.
The province unveiled the details of the return on Wednesday. Speaking to reporters, Education Minister Stephen Lecce — who was joined by the province’s top doctor Kieran Moore — declared that schools will reopen “with strong protections” that are supported by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
What’s in the plan? The province will deploy rapid tests for students and staff. They won’t be mandatory and will be provided to symptomatic individuals. Test delivery for elementary students and board staff began last week. Boards should receive an additional supply of tests for secondary schools later this week.
Students must use the province’s updated symptom-sensitive screening tool and families will no longer be notified of positive cases in classes. High school students can go back to the pre-pandemic semester-timetable.
The province will report on absence rates in schools starting Monday and local public health unit will inform families when a third of the school is absent due to COVID-19. N95 masks will be provided to staff, as well as three-ply masks for students. Schools will hold vaccination clinics for children, and local health units will provide consent forms to parents, according to the province.
The province is bracing for staffing shortages. In a memo obtained by newsBeyond, the Ministry of Education says operational shutdowns “must be a last resort.” The province intends to introduce “regulatory amendments” to allow first-year teacher candidates into the classroom to provide staffing support.
Ontario is also turning to retired teachers for help. The province reached a temporary five-month long agreement with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation to almost double the number of days retirees can be re-employed.
Meanwhile, school boards are also planning for staffing shortages. Some — like Peel and Durham — are hiring classroom monitors to supervise students when absences cannot be filled. In a statement to newsBeyond, a spokesperson for Peel District School Board says the individuals would assist “with student supervision for safety purposes” and would be required to undergo a criminal background check and vulnerable sector search. Vax status must be disclosed.
The response: NDP MPP Marit Stiles called the job postings “indication of how poorly” the government has supported school boards. Liberal chief Steven Del Duca gave the government a failing grade on education, but said school boards “are doing everything they can in this critically important moment.”
Opposition parties, unions, and pediatrician groups react
For the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, the greatest source of frustration is the “lack of information and lack of answers.”
“Prior to the announcement, there was really nothing. We saw the tweet on Monday and heard there would be a press conference. That was it,” said OSSTF president Karen Littlewood in an interview with newsBeyond. “I find that really disappointing and frustrating. We should be partners in education and partners in fighting the pandemic,” Littlewood added.
Littlewood cited concerns about classroom safety — ventilation, the distribution of N95 masks for staff and eating protocols in classes. “When you can't go to a restaurant right now because that's unsafe, how can it be safe to have that many people together with their masks off eating in the classroom, she asked. The government’s plan also caught flak from ETFO and OECTA.
A statement from the Children’s Health Coalition — which includes a number of pediatric and mental health groups — declared support for the decision to reopen schools, citing “student's mental, physical and developmental wellbeing.”
Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said the closure was a result of “cheapskate” policies by the government, calling on the province to implement additional measures in schools. NDP leader Andrea Horwath called for a new vaccine push for students. Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said the province should implement a “province-wide database on safe school statistics.”
‘We were frustrated’ — Hobin on how DPCDSB’s letter to Lecce came to be
Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board fired off a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce expressing “grave concern, disappointment, and frustration” with the province’s plan for the return of in-person learning.
“There was absolutely no consultation with school boards, trustee associations, unions or directors of education on this significant change in practice. Parents/guardians depend on this information to inform their decisions on whether to send their children to school on any given day.”
What happened? Tuesday was when the board's Administration and Finance Committee met and received a report from the Associate Director Daniel Del Bianco. Trustees became frustrated.
“The information we had received around school reopening came from the media,” explained board chair Sharon Hobin — who signed the letter on behalf of the board. Wednesday afternoon was the first time the board received anything official from the Ministry of Education, according to Hobin. Following his presser, Minister Lecce held a briefing with board chairs across Ontario.
The main issue is the lack of consultation. “Why aren’t they asking us about our opinions on what is happening in our schools,” Hobin questioned.
That includes consultation on the decision to axe reporting in schools, which was scooped by newsBeyond in late-December. “Why couldn't there even be an email that would go out to stakeholders asing what we think about that,” she asked.
Other issues leaving the board at unease is the “inequitable access” to RATs, the use of three-ply masks for students and the “reduced health and safety measures.”
What happens next for the board? “We're going to watch for the teachers and students who don't come to school because they’re ill. We will be looking for how many students are actually in-class? Do we have teachers for everybody? Not just in-person, but virtual as well.”
Has the board heard from the province since the letter was dispatched? “We don't expect to hear from [Lecce]. He's probably not very happy,” Hobin said. “We see ourselves of representatives more than politicians. We were just speaking out about concerns we and parents have.”
Phillips out as cabmin, won't seek re-election in June
Rod Phillips will bid adieu to Queen’s Park next month and will not seek re-election in June. The outgoing Long-Term Care Minister — who was tapped to craft the PCs election platform — informed Premier Doug Ford and party president Brian Patterson of his decision on Friday.
“I have always considered public service a privilege and it has been an honour to serve as the MPP for Ajax and in three Cabinet portfolios,” former Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman’s former chief of staff said in a statement dropped Friday afternoon. The-businessman-turned-politician plans to return to the private sector.
“Phillips’ departure appears to have surprised everyone at Queen’s Park, from the premier’s office to his own staff to the media,” the Toronto Sun’s Brian Lilley reports. Phillips’ statement “was issued at the same time his staff was informed in a hastily called meeting.” More from the Sun on Phillips’ big surprise.
Hours after Phillips’ announcement, Premier Doug Ford appointed his successor. Paul Calandra will serve as the province’s Long-Term Care Minister, while keeping his other gigs — House Leader and Legislative Affairs Minister.
Vivian Stamatopoulos — a long-term care expert and advocate — spoke with Phillips “a handful of times” after his appointment and says she is disappointed that he is exiting “during a very precarious time.” Here’s what Dr. Stamatopoulos had to say about his decision and what lies ahead for long-term care in Ontario:
On Phillips’ decision to step down: “I was very surprised. I did not see it coming. I'm really disappointed. Honestly, I would have preferred for him to have stayed in the role and not to have a mix up during a very precarious time. It’s not ideal.”
Her relationship with the Minister: “There was a relationship. There was zero relationship with Minister Fullerton. The first call Mr. Phillips made after he was sworn-in was to me. It was a very clear shift. It’s not like we had a very close working relationship. We talked a handful of times. I helped secure meetings with some families. We got a couple of good things out of it.”
The impact of Omicron on long-term care: “I haven't spoken to [Phillips] during this entire Omicron phase. It's been disappointing. There was a missed opportunity to take action in December. Now, we're paying the consequences.”
On Paul Calandra handling three portfolios: “I hope that it changes. There is absolutely no way that anybody could do this job on a part-time basis. We need somebody who can sufficiently pay attention to what's happening. It would be a very big slap in the face to the LTC community if they dial it in with a part-timer.”
What should be on Calandra’s to-do list: “I think they need an immediate recruitment drive. We can’t wait for another month. If indeed Minister Phillips is still MIA until he steps down, the staffing situation will be dire. It already is dire. I’d would like to see something that would attract back the workers that left. You have to address the working conditions and pay in these facilities. There is nothing at play right now that will appreciably approve this sector. In the interim, we need things like mandating the use of N95 masks, daily rapid testing, prioritizing boosters shots for the staff, dealing with staffing issues and air filtration. We were promised with HEPA filters and those haven’t been deployed, as far as I know. He has more than enough on his to-do list to be kept very busy.”
Phillips will resign his seat next month. In the last election, he defeated Liberal incumbent Joe Dickson and won with a margin of 9%. The upcoming Progressive Conservative candidate — who is yet to be chosen — will face off against Liberal Amber Bowen and former mayor and NDP candidate Steve Parish. Background on the riding here.
Ontario is being battered by a blizzard that left highways closed and Premier Doug Ford out on the streets helping dig out stranded vehicles. Here’s the latest on the response to the snow dump:
When asked by City News’ Richard Southern if military assistance will be required, Premier Doug Ford said “I think we can handle it ourselves.”
On federal assistance, Ottawa says it has not received any request from Ontario. In a statement to newsBeyond, a spokesperson for Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says the federal government is in “regular contact” with provincial counterparts and “will work with them to identify federal resources should the situation evolve.”
A spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones says the province’s Emergency Operations Centre is “not in receipt of any requests for assistance at this time.” “We will continue to monitor this situation and are ready to act should a municipality require provincial support,” they added.
The cities are responding to the storm. Toronto Mayor John Tory declared a “major snowstorm condition” to allow the city to move forward with snow removal operations. Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie’s office tells newsBeyond that the city has not asked the province for help and crews “have been working all day to clear snow,” starting with priority routes. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown’s office said the city “does not need any assistance with snow removal” and has “many staff and contractors working.”
The COVID-19 vaccine won’t be added to the list of mandatory immunizations for students. “It's a newer vaccine,” Ontario’s top doctor explained. Dr. Kieran Moore said the province wants “greater experience” with it before making such a decision. Moore was later accused of “feeding vaccine hesitancy,” facing calls by Opposition leaders to clarify his comments or step down. Moore later issued clarification for his comments.
Health Canada has approved the use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 antiviral pill. The federal government has secured an agreement with the company to receive a million doses of the therapeutic drug, intended for use by those at an increased risk of developing severe illness from the virus.
A new poll from the Innovative Research Group shows the Liberals with a slight lead over the PCs provincially. 36% of voters would back the Liberals in the next election, while 35% of voters would vote for a re-elected PC government. The NDP stands in third place at 22%. Half of all non-PC supporters say Premier Doug Ford is the best choice for Premier, but an “unfavourable view of Ford is steady.”
The College Employer Council has asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board to conduct a vote with Ontario college faculty on the council's most recent offer. The council says “it has become clear that the union will not moderate their demands regardless of the advice they are given,” days after faculty entered stage two of work-to-rule. Read more about the dispute and our interview with the faculty’s bargaining team chair here.
WHAT WE’RE READING
TORONTO STAR: “Last Green leadership vote was not ‘legitimate,’ says interim leader” by Althia Raj
“Here’s what we should do with the prime minister’s residence: Tear it down” by Susan Delacourt
CBC NEWS: “Quebec calls on bureaucrats to work in hospitals amid staffing shortage” by Thomas Gerbet
GLOBAL NEWS: “Drivers stuck along major Toronto-area highways as winter storm blasts southern Ontario” by Gabby Rodrigues
CTV NEWS: “Ontario's top doctor 'starting to have much more hope' on COVID-19” by Michael Woods
GLOBE AND MAIL: “Hospitalizations expected to surge in Canada, PHAC modelling says, while COVID-19 cases appear to be peaking” by Marieke Walsh and Justine Hunter
THIS WEEK’S QUESTION: When was the last major winter storm in Ontario? Send us your answers or reply to this email.
Thank you for reading POLICORNER on this snowy Monday. Have something to share? A newsy news tip or story idea? Drop us a line. Share the newsletter on Twitter and invite your friends to sign up today.