Sheridan Ignoring Questions Over making childcare students complete in-person training during lockdown

By: Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic the designation of “essential” worker has applied to those in food production and retail grocery stores, nurses and doctors, emergency response workers and, more recently, teachers and childcare professionals.
When Premier Doug Ford issued the stay-at-home order for all Ontarians three weeks ago, he was adamant. “There’s no confusion. It’s very simple. Stay. Home. Stay home. If you’re questioning, ‘Should I go out,’ you got the answer: stay home.”
If you are not designated an essential worker, other than to get food, medicine or to go out for exercise, the direction was clear. Stay home.
So, students at Sheridan College were confused when they were told the early childhood education (ECE) program would also fall into the category of essential and in-person placements would have to be completed, despite the current lockdown order in Peel, otherwise their graduation will be delayed a year.
Some students are now calling on the college to reconsider the risk it is putting them in.
Communications sent by Sheridan College, and reviewed by The Pointer, tell ECE students that, unless they have a specific high-risk exemption, they are to attend in-person placements in the Region of Peel this month.
“You certainly have the option to decide against participating in placement until you feel more comfortable,” Stephenie Gillingham, program coordinator, and Cathy Coulthard, associate dean of Sheridan’s Faculty of Applied Health, wrote to students on January 25. “As this is a personal choice, it important (sic) you are aware that this will delay your graduation and there may be additional college fees for taking placement in a future semester.”
In a separate email to a student, Gillingham confirmed the only option for those not comfortable completing placement is to try again next year. “It will delay you from graduating for two semesters,” she wrote, adding the associated fees would be roughly $2,000 in addition to what the student has already paid.
Sheridan said it is willing to make exceptions for students on an individual basis, depending on their situation, but is not offering a solution to all students.
Frustrated students wrote to Michael O’Leary, Dean of Applied Health, and launched a petition to find a solution. They say they’re not all looking to be excluded from in-person placements, but argue it is only fair to offer a virtual option for students who want it, given the obvious health risks posed by the ongoing pandemic.
Potential reasons for not taking part in placements include accommodation in multigenerational homes, a lack of childcare options and particular risks associated with contracting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The Pointer sent O’Leary a list of questions about the students’ concerns. He did not address them other than stating virtual placements “aren’t widely offered”.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating, we all wanted to understand,” Diana Franco, a student at Sheridan’s Brampton campus, told The Pointer. “It’s not necessarily like we don’t want placement or anything like that, we just want to understand why the option of virtual placement isn’t for us… why can we not have the option if we don’t feel comfortable?”
So far, a letter to the Dean with 23 student signatures and a separate petition signed by 69 people have received no response. Staff have only offered to meet with individuals, not address the concerns of the group as a whole.
“We have the right to know. It’s our health and safety and we’re getting no responses,” Franco said.
After learning at home all year, ECE students will soon be converging in Peel Region from across the GTA. They will go from course work done at home to interacting with children from different households and travelling across regional boundaries.
Over the last two weeks, daily case counts have declined, but Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga continue to report numbers comparable to October, when stricter measures were introduced.
Justifying the decision to send students into childcare spaces in its January 25 letter, Sheridan pointed to declining cases. Staff highlighted safety measures such as rules that mean childcare centres must report cases in Ontario to the Ministry of Education. Peel, Toronto and York have been kept from reopening their schools until February 16 because of concerns about viral transmission while case numbers still pose risks to safe in-class education.
Peel Public Health confirmed to The Pointer they consulted with Sheridan and offered advice, but said the school made the final decision.
Sheridan has not indicated if Peel Public Health advised against its decision to send students into childcare settings while the region remains in lockdown.
The current provincial stay-at-home order exempts those “receiving or providing training or educational services” and attending a post-secondary institution is also an allowable reason for leaving home.
However, the order is vague and there is no language regarding post-secondary education that can be done virtually.
The risks of having students travel daily across regions and then attend childcare settings are obvious. But O’Leary ignored questions about these risks and possible alternatives.
In their petition to Sheridan College, students complained many commute via public transit. For students around the GTA (Sheridan has campuses in Brampton, Mississauga and Oakville) long commutes on buses and trains present additional transmission risk, before even entering childcare settings where distancing from young children is hard.
Students have pointed out they are being designated by their school as essential workers when, in reality, they remain students. Upon graduation and taking their first job in childcare, they will become essential workers, but right now they are still learning, they told The Pointer.
“We have been virtual-learning since September, meaning we are not essential so why are we now being told we are essential for placement,” the petition says. “This is unfair and unsafe.”
In a statement shared with The Pointer, O’Leary — who students say has not responded directly to them — said the college is observing health and safety measures. He said if guidelines change, Sheridan will respond.
It’s unclear what guidelines he was referring to and what he means by observing safety measures. The students are expected to attend childcare settings outside the college.
“Many Sheridan ECE students want to complete their in-person placements as scheduled,” he wrote. “For those who choose to delay their placement for this semester, faculty are working with them one-on-one to determine a path to graduate once their program requirements are completed. We’ve communicated to students that we’ll work with high-risk individuals to look at alternative placement arrangements.”
For some students, including Franco, the lack of detail and clear explanations is frustrating.
The decision to send students from across the GTA into childcare spaces in hard-hit Peel does not mesh with public health guidance to stay at home.
The Province has taken measures to protect the public across a range of sectors, including students in elementary and secondary education. Some are unhappy Sheridan won’t follow the same safety measures.
“It has been emphasized repeatedly by the government authorities, to stay within our safety bubble and minimize any contact with outsiders,” students wrote in their letter to O’Leary. “For some this has led to not seeing their extended family for several months, having to keep their children at home. Thus, it does not make any logical sense to send an entire group of intensive students, who reside across the GTA into the Peel area [which has seen Ontario’s highest rates of transmission for months] for placement.”
Franco remains frustrated. “We just want another option for online placement,” she said. “I don’t think the options should be you either go in or you delay your graduation, that’s not what anybody signed up for.