Is Ontario on the verge of jeopardizing another school year before it starts?

OPINION: My children are under 10. They're not eligible to be vaccinated. I'm worried about their safety — but the government isn't giving parents much information to work with
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Aug 25, 2021
Premier Doug Ford (left) and Education Minister Stephen Lecce take a Toronto school on September 1, 2020. (Carlos Osorio/CP)



Ontario schools are supposed to reopen for in-person learning in less than two weeks. I am beginning to think that won’t happen.

Last week, Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer, held a press conference. When answering a question (around the nine-minute mark) from CHCH’s Randy Rath on why it’s taken the province so long to come up with an immunization policy with school just around the corner, Moore said, “I think you can recall that, several weeks ago, I did say the clock is ticking — 42 days before school was supposed to start.”

Supposed to start.

“We are preparing aggressively for the fall. I’m sorry to say I think it’s going to be a difficult fall and winter,” Moore said in that same press conference. “We need to be proactive to avoid the reactive closures that result in significant impacts on our mental, physical, social, and economic well-being.”

After such a dire announcement, I expected that, at the press conference this week, Moore would present a detailed plan of what the next few weeks would look like in the face of the fourth wave and in anticipation of schools reopening. 

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Yet what we got was mostly what we’ve seen throughout this pandemic: blame was placed on the people, not on the government and its actions or inaction. Notably absent from the press conference: Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and Premier Doug Ford

“The biggest risk is to those who are not vaccinated at present,” said Moore.

The fourth wave, he added, is fuelled by the “unvaccinated amongst us”: recent data from Ontario shows that unvaccinated individuals are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized and 48 times more likely to be a patient in the ICU.

As a parent of two children under 10 — who are not eligible to be vaccinated — I was seized with fear listening to these numbers.

I expected Moore to set out a thorough plan that would throw all options on the table and reassure the parents of Ontario that this government was doing all it could to prevent this unvaccinated cohort from becoming a chilling statistic. 

Instead, he suggested that some parents were part of the problem. “To parents with young children, we’ve been following the data, and I’m asking you also be vaccinated. Parents of young children apparently have a lower immunization rate. Our youngest Ontarians, those 11 and younger, don’t have a choice. There’s no vaccine available to them yet,” he said. “And it’s our collective responsibility to protect them. To surround them with those who are vaccinated. We call that concept ‘cocooning.’ To provide immunity and protection to these children. This is one of the best ways to protect them. So if you’re a parent of younger children, please consider getting vaccinated.”

Nowhere in the world can children under 12 get vaccinated, yet this is apparently the best this government can do as we head into a third pandemic school year while facing the most contagious variant of COVID-19 thus far.

This is not just inadequate; it’s a failure of monumental proportions.

Earlier this week, the Toronto Sun published an op-ed from Lecce. “Starting this September,” he wrote, “every learning space without mechanical ventilation — be it a classroom, lab or library — in school buildings with partial or no mechanical ventilation will now have standalone HEPA filter units in place.” 

Why were these improvements not implemented last year or even after schools closed this past April? Why wasn’t this announcement made last May, when it was decided that school boards would continue to offer online classes this fall? Perhaps that should have been the first red flag for parents. 

During that May press conference, Lecce said, “We will not take risks with your child.” 

But that’s exactly what this government appears to be doing. Thirteen days before schools reopen, parents are left to fill in the blanks of what the year will look like. Will we have support to address the learning loss of this past year and half? Will we have smaller class sizes, as recommended in last year’s SickKids hospital report

It’s as if we’ve moved past the Hunger Games portion of the pandemic and are now living in Groundhog Day

One summer day, trying to calm my pandemic nerves, I rewatched the ’90s film. In it, Bill Murray plays a self-absorbed weatherman, Phil, who finds himself trapped in a time loop. About 30 minutes in, once Phil has realized that he’s doomed to repeat the same day over and over, he says, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

This is what it feels like to be a parent with school-aged children in Ontario. You can do everything in your power to help keep your children safe, hydrated, educated, healthy, and polite in the middle of a pandemic. But, whatever you do, it’s not enough when those in charge continue to deflect blame. 

So should we blame those parents who haven’t gotten vaccinated?

It’s on the government if it hasn’t been able to communicate the importance of vaccines. This government hasn’t done everything it can do to curb this fourth wave —  including, seemingly, introducing smaller class sizes. So why should those people who are unvaccinated be expected to take this seriously? The government’s reluctance to make decisions, especially unpopular ones, has played a significant role in getting us to where we are now. 

Moore said we need to be proactive rather than reactive — but reactive is often exactly what this government is. Band-Aiding your way through an emergency now, in year two, doesn’t inspire confidence. A year ago, it was understandable that kids had to learn from home. Now, we’re relying primarily on vaccines to get us back to some semblance of normal, as we see how the Delta variant is affecting children in the United States. But when a significant percentage of the population is not eligible — and likely won’t be for months to come — that’s wishful thinking.

Online learning for a third straight year should not be the only solution. Learning losses from the past year and a half need to be addressed, and additional losses need to be curbed. Moore himself said that we’re going to live with this virus for the foreseeable future. Pretending that children will be just fine in the long run is not a solution. Children’s perceived resiliency should not make the grown-ups around them feel better when they are failing to protect their right to an accessible education. 

Schools were supposed to be the first things to open and the last to close, but we know that hasn’t been the case. And it’s seems inevitable that COVID-19 cases will rise once schools reopen … if schools reopen. 

Kids don’t have lobby groups, and kids don’t have the voting power to help shift policy decisions. They have parents to advocate for them, but as has been noted, we are all tired and exhausted. We need those in power — in health care and in elected positions — to lead and not to blame.

As Moore said earlier this week, “For me it’s about prevention, prevention, prevention. Our fate is in our hands.”

In the interest of full disclosure: since it was created in 1970, TVO has been part of the province’s delivery of distance learning. Today, TVO offers online secondary-school courses through the Independent Learning Centre; it has been asked by the province to help implement a provincial online-learning system in Ontario.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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