Let’s keep the schools closed — and get a head start on summer

OPINION: Ontario’s children have suffered during this long, grim pandemic. They’ve earned a break. Let’s give it to them
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 20, 2021
Ontario announced in February that March break would be shifted into April. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Let’s just close the schools. Seriously. At least in the hot-spot areas, let’s just shut ’em down.

When March break — deferred into April, which causes some linguistic confusion — finally rolled around, I think it was evident that the kids wouldn’t be going back to school. This was in Toronto, to be clear. The situation was different in other parts of the province. But as March/April break went on, and cases zoomed up, I said to my wife, herself an elementary-school teacher, that I just didn’t see how the schools would open again this academic year. If they did, they wouldn’t stay open long.

That was right, even if it unfolded strangely. To prepare this column, I had to go back and assemble a timeline of the major events — the lockdowns and school closures have blurred together — and, gosh, it was weirder than I remembered. 

First was the decision to punt March break into April in the first place — that wasn’t a huge deal and made sense in the circumstances. Once March break had been scheduled to begin April 12, things continued to deteriorate, and there was growing pressure on the government to shut the schools. 

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Education Minister Stephen Lecce said no and indeed went out of his way to say that would not happen. Then Peel Region did it on its own authority, announcing on Easter Monday, when the schools were closed anyway, that they would not reopen the next day, Tuesday the 6th, as planned. They switched to virtual for “two weeks” — parents knew what that meant! Toronto bizarrely waited a day before matching Peel’s move, thus accomplishing the worst of both worlds — it gave the kids one solid day of mingling after a long weekend and then closed it all down. The deferred March break wiped out the week after that, and the schools haven’t opened again anyway, thanks to the extended stay-at-home order. We’ve been virtual ever since.

The situation in Ontario is improving, and remarkably fast. We are likely seeing the benefits of the vaccinations conducted to date — the virus just has fewer and fewer places to go. Case counts are falling fast. Roughly 1 per cent of the population is getting jabbed every day. The hospitals are decompressing slowly, but enough progress has been made for Ontario to rescind the order banning all but absolutely essential surgeries; we’ve even taken patients from hard-hit Manitoba. With the federal government reporting a stable (and excellent) forecast for further vaccine deliveries right through July, things haven’t looked this good in a while. 

This has led to some chatter that it might be possible to open the schools again in June. On Thursday, the premier will be announcing plans for a gradual reopening, and there’s chatter about the schools. Maybe it would be possible! Maybe. But don’t do it. Keep the schools closed, and begin summer early.

I don’t mean shut them down immediately. Writing off a full five weeks of planned instruction would be a bit much. And there are some specialized programs that must be kept operating, for children with special needs and their long-exhausted families. But Ontario’s children have suffered during this long, grim pandemic. They have sacrificed hugely to save their elders. The odds of a child dying from COVID-19 are vanishingly small. Even serious illnesses are rare. But they’ve had their lives turned upside down to save their elders. This was the right thing to do. It was a cost worth paying. But it was a cost. And it was one they weren’t consulted or asked about. They’ve earned a break. Let’s give it to them.

I confess to a degree of motivated self-interest here. My wife is teaching virtually from our dining room. This means that, during the day, I’m the guy attempting to wrangle our two kids as they navigate virtual school. It’s a lot to juggle, and it’s certainly easier to just tell the kids to entertain themselves with the trampoline or their iPads while daddy gets some work done.

So I’ll acknowledge the self-interest, but I still think this is worth doing. There aren’t many rewards you can offer a child more exciting than an early start to vacation. If our numbers really are improving enough to consider opening schools in June, why not open outdoor amenities and camps instead? Give my six-year-old a choice between a reopened basketball court or some medal pinned on his chest, and he’ll take the basketball.

There are valid arguments against my proposal. The first is that this would compound the disruption to their education, which has already been immense. Another is the issue of equity; some parents are probably counting on whatever supervision and distraction virtual school provides so they can function. Not every family can do what I can — tell the kids to take the dog in the yard and go nuts, avoiding injury or sibling fisticuffs if possible. (This only sporadically proves possible, experience has taught me.) Families depending on virtual school or rooting for a real return to school probably won’t welcome my proposal.

I grant that. And I could probably be talked out of it. But the one thing I’ll add in its defence is that, at least here in the GTA, something incredible has happened these past few days: summer has arrived in full glorious force. A long, cold, dark, dreary spring pivoted to a magnificent summer with a speed surpassed in recent memory only by the Doug Ford government’s walking back some of its own emergency orders. The forecast is generally solid going forward — some cool days, and some rain, but a lot of sunshine and heat. My kids are troupers. They were doing their best with virtual school, and it helped when it was dark, cold, and wet outside. Now that it’s gorgeous, with mostly good weather in the forecast? Every damn time I check in on them, they’re staring wistfully out the window.

I laugh at this, because I remember being their age, at around this time of the year, sitting at my desk in a classroom, staring out the window as spring turned to summer. Some things never change, even if almost everything else has. If, two weeks from now, our numbers are still improving fast, if it’s safe to reopen more outdoor amenities and camps, and if the weather remains good, let’s give the children of Ontario a thank-you they’ll remember — let’s shut down the schools early and give them a longer summer before a safe, hopefully sustainable full restart in class in September.

Let their pandemic end on a high note. They’ve earned it.

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