On Ontario schools, it’s a lot of hurry up and wait

OPINION: Some schools will be closed until at least February 10. Will they open on the 11th? A week later? A month? We still don’t really know
By Matt Gurney - Published on Feb 01, 2021
Premier Doug Ford has expressed hope that the February 10 school-reopening date can be safely achieved. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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My first email to my editor on Monday was confident, concise, and efficient. “I’ll write on Lecce’s 11 a.m. announcement,” I reported. As someone who’s done a bit of editing himself, I know how important it is for editors to know what’s coming. A big part of the job is what I call “air-traffic control” — you need to know what’s on hand, what’s expected imminently, and what’s coming later in the day.

So I felt good. Helpful. Courteous, even. But then Lecce — that’d be Education Minister Stephen Lecce — got up and made his announcement, and ... huh. There’s not much here to write about. So I told my editor that I’d stick to the plan but not to expect much. There wasn’t much to say.

There were announcements. Ontario is stepping up asymptomatic testing in student populations, which is good. (A trial project run in Toronto late last year caught a lot more COVID-19 than we’d expected.) To ease labour shortages and get more hands on deck, the province will allow would-be teachers who have not yet fully completed their training to take on some in-class roles. That’s good, too! The province also announced that it would spend hundreds of millions more on making schools more resilient in the face of the evolving threat posed by the pandemic. Okay, well, that’s good too. Hat trick!

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But the one thing that hundreds of thousands of parents want to know — when are their kids going back to school?! — is still unknown. We’ll learn more soon. The premier said that he hopes to have more information out in a day or so and that he hopes the February 10 reopening date can be safely achieved.

Considering that, while writing this column, I’ve already been interrupted twice by my kids needing some help, I can say with confidence that the premier and I are of like mind on that issue.

I’ve never seen a topic that so pervades daily life and conversation — and invites so much wild speculation and rumour-mongering — as when schools will reopen. A few years ago, real estate was all the rage: you’d run into a neighbour and exchange shocked anecdotes about how much the cost of a local house had soared since the quarter before. Now it’s schools, schools, schools.

But we remain in the dark.

This is, admittedly, a problem limited to a relatively narrow demographic slice. Only parents are much fussed by this, and only those whose kids are young enough to need a lot of help (interruption counter is up to three, by the way). Indeed, elementary schools already have opened again across much of the province. Even as the overall COVID-19 situation improves steadily in Ontario, and even as we finally begin to see meaningful improvements in our ICU-occupancy rates, Toronto and Peel region remain stubborn hot spots. It’s conceivable that every region in the province except Toronto and parts of the surrounding area will be back to in-class school shortly. I’ve never wanted to live in ... uhh, let me check the last update ... the Southwestern Public Health unit as much as I do right now.

But it’s an all-consuming problem in those places and for those people it’s affecting. The schools here will be closed until at least February 10. We knew that early, and that was helpful. Will that mean they’ll open on the 11th? Will it be another week? A month? In the high-risk areas, are we just going to write off the rest of the year, again, and stick with virtual?

I really wanted to be able to tell you that today. No matter what the decision, I’d have had something to say. But this ... this is just more hurry up and wait.

It’s a tricky time for Ontario. The numbers are good, but they aren’t fantastic — as noted, Toronto and Peel remain problematic hot spots. It might make sense to get everyone else back to school outside those regions and to buy Toronto and Peel more time to bring cases (and hospitalization rates) down farther. But this is all happening against the backdrop of the vaccine challenges being faced by both the federal and provincial governments, and while scientists the world over are warily eyeing the newly emerged COVID-19 strains, wondering what problems they’ll cause. There are obvious reasons — believe me! — to get kids back in school, but there are equally obvious and urgent reasons to proceed slowly and cautiously. I want my kids back in school the moment it’s safe but not a moment before, and nailing the timing on that is an obvious challenge.

The waiting is the hardest part, a smart man once sang, and there’s only so much Lecce or anyone else can do about that. That’s the reality. But, still. Gosh. If we had a reasonable sense of when schools could open, we could plan around it and manage our expectations accordingly. It’s not that I don’t realize that the extra funding, personnel, and testing are good things. They are! It’s just that it’s hard to appreciate the big picture when you’re stuck managing the constant, low-level stress of the small one.

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