OHRC: Letter to the Minister of Education about convening a return-to-school partnership table
The Honourable Stephen Lecce
Minister of Education
438 University Ave, 5th Floor
Toronto, ON M7A 1N3
Dear Minister Lecce:
Re: Convening a return-to-school partnership table
I am writing on behalf of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).
We hope this letter finds you and your team safe and healthy, and we thank you for your ongoing efforts to provide continuity of learning for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The OHRC welcomes the June 19 announcement of the government’s School Safety Plan for the 2020 – 2021 school year, and understands that school boards will develop specific plans by late July based on this direction.
The unprecedented closure of schools has been difficult for all students. The OHRC has heard from stakeholders and Indigenous organizations that students from Human Rights Code (Code)-protected groups who are particularly vulnerable at this time, have experienced unique and compounded challenges. We have heard that their circumstances have not consistently been considered and addressed, and as a result, they have fallen even further behind than their peers. We have also heard concerns that vulnerable students will be disproportionally and negatively impacted by several elements of the School Safety Plan.
The OHRC released a policy statement on maintaining human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a statement of actions that sets out various steps that governments, and those delivering government services, can take that are broadly consistent with a human rights-based approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the fundamental principles the OHRC has stressed during the pandemic is the need for governments to adopt human rights-based decision-making processes, including making decisions, taking actions and allocating resources with input from vulnerable groups and the most affected communities, and consulting with human rights institutions and experts.
Given the vital work ahead with the plan to reopen schools, the OHRC is calling on the government to convene a Return-to-School Partnership Table to provide advice, input and expertise on implementing plans for Ontario’s students, educators and school boards from the perspective of Code-protected groups. The OHRC also recommends that the Ministry advise school boards to convene similar local tables to ensure that board-specific plans meet the needs of all students.
Time is running out before September, and provincial and local plans for the 2020 – 2021 school year are likely well underway. However, the duty to address the needs of Code-protected groups when schools reconvene can only be met when based on the evidence, expertise and experience found from the education sector and those who represent vulnerable students. Vulnerable students’ rights must be at the forefront of your planning, and their needs must be supported and accommodated to the point of undue hardship. Working with a Return-to-School Partnership Table, along with board-specific local tables, will strengthen the government’s and school boards’ ability to meet these obligations.