Health providers support #SafeSeptember demands

As Ontario begins slowly re-opening and we recover from COVID-19, safety is at the forefront of our minds. Yet the current plan from the Ontario government to re-open schools does not adequately address safety and once again will not support low-income and racialized students, families and workers, who were already disproportionally affected by the first wave of COVID-19. Health Providers Against Poverty supports the #SafeSeptember demands issued by the Ontario Parent Action Network and Ontario Education Workers United ( HPAP with the Decent Work and Health Network have created an open letter to demand that the safety of our students, families, and workers is prioritized. Please read the letter below and consider signing on if you are a health provider in Ontario!

To: Premier Doug Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce and your government

Health providers support #SafeSeptember demands

With people across Ontario barely recovering from the first wave of COVID-19, your government wants to dangerously reopen schools in the lead up to flu season. Your government has promised to “do anything to keep our kids safe,” but nowhere in the Ontario guide to reopening Ontario’s schools is there a single mention of paid sick days, funded childcare, job protection or income supports for parents who keep their children at home, anti-racism demands and other equity concerns, or food and housing security. These are all crucial social determinants of health and failing to address them is an invitation for a second wave of COVID-19, which like the first will disproportionately affect low-income and racialized students, families and workers. 

As health providers we support all #SafeSeptember demands issued by the Ontario Parent Action Network and Ontario Education Workers United. They provide crucial policies to address the acute and ongoing public health threat of COVID-19, and chronic public health problems that need to be addressed at the same time. The #SafeSeptember demands offer a prescription for healthy classes, healthy schools and homes, healthy workers and healthy students.

The first wave of COVID-19 has taught the importance of physical distancing, which is not just a behavioural issue but depends on effective policies. A return to overcrowded class sizes threatens to bring a second wave, as many schools around the world have experienced. A #SafeSeptember requires small class sizes, income supports for parents who keep their children at home, and funding for before- and after-school childcare.

COVID-19 has taught the importance of clean buildings, and the need to “stay home” when sick. But too many students–disproportionately low income, Indigenous, Black and racialized–experience housing insecurity and underfunded schools. Increased COVID-19 infection rates has been linked to overcrowded housing, which also occurs in areas with high concentrations of poverty and racialized communities. Despite this, your government has made no new commitments to address the systemic barriers faced by racialized communities that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19. A return to “normal”, including the lack of safe and affordable housing, evictions and unsafe schools, threatens to worsen the pandemic. A #SafeSeptember requires healthy schools and homes, including funding for housing security, school infrastructure, custodians and PPE.

Local outbreaks of COVID-19, from personal support workers to migrant farm workers, have taught the deadly consequences of denying paid sick days for all. As the updated Sick Kids Guidance for School Reopening states, “Employers and the government play a critical role in supporting parents/caregivers who need to stay at home with their child because their child is sick or in isolation due to SARS-CoV-2 infection or exposure…Parents and caregivers need to be empowered by their employers to be able to take paid sick days and/or work remotely if their children/youth are not able to attend school.” Parents with adequate paid sick days are also less likely to send sick children to school reducing the risk of children spreading infectious disease, which is especially important for people with chronic medical conditions, immunocompromised states, or disabilities. A #SafeSeptember requires healthy workers, with 21 emergency paid sick days and full status for all workers including parents and caregivers.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on racialized communities has taught the importance of health equity, and that anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism are public health crises. There should be no return to the normalization of dramatically unequal educational opportunities, curricula, nutrition or health outcomes dictated by systemic oppression. A #SafeSeptember requires healthy students—including learning supports, food programs and public health nurses, anti-racist and equity initiatives, and a decolonized curriculum.

From Alberta to Ontario, parents, teachers and health providers are uniting to demand safe school reopening. This requires your government to provide funding that will ensure basic public health protections, and to address broader social determinants of health that have been neglected for far too long and that are key to addressing the pandemic. 

As health providers we will be dealing with the consequences of dangerous school reopenings and know that prevention is better than cure. To stop a second wave of COVID-19, your government first needs to learn the lessons of the first wave, and follow the teachings of parents and education workers who know best how to keep their children and themselves safe. We fully support all #SafeSeptember demands and urge the government to implement them immediately, before a second wave. 

Health providers should click here to sign on. This statement was prepared by members of the Decent Work and Health Network and Health Providers Against Poverty. All health providers across Ontario are invited to sign on to show their support for a #SafeSeptember.