#onpoli newsletter: Will schools be ready for the first day of class?

Ontario's latest effort to help get kids back to school has hit two stumbling blocks so far
By Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 18, 2020
Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce makes an announcement at Queen's Park (Christopher Katsarov/CP)



Hello, #onpoli people: 

On Friday, the province said school boards could access millions of dollars in reserve funding to finance school reopening plans. Podcast hosts Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath say that isn’t really an option.

Cornering cabinet ministers

Man speaking in front of a blue curtain.
Premier Doug Ford speaks at the 2020 AMO Conference (Twitter/AMO)

Steve Paikin: Well, JMM, we do need to talk about education given the $500 million announcement made last Friday by Education Minister Stephen Lecce — which is meant to make classrooms safer for students, teachers, and everyone else connected to the system. But before we do that, I wanted to touch base with you on this year's virtual meeting of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. As all #onpoli nerds know, Ontario has 444 local municipalities — including huge cities and tiny hamlets. And every year, their political leaders look forward to this conference: they like comparing notes with their fellow politicians. But we shouldn't underestimate the opportunity this conference normally provides for the reeve from Left Overshoe, Ontario (I'm making this up, of course) to buttonhole a cabinet minister in some hotel hallway and lobby directly regarding some local concern. Given COVID-19 and the fact that most of this conference is happening virtually, is any of that arm-twisting able to happen this year?

John Michael: Ministers are still taking meetings (virtually) this year, and in some ways this year’s arrangement might actually be preferable for at least some of the delegates: mayors, councillors, wardens, and reeves all come to AMO for many reasons but one of the biggies is the opportunity for face time with various ministers of cabinet. Have a problem with police? You want time with the solicitor general. Is there a hospital in your community that needs cash? Try talking to the health minister. But because there’s hundreds of municipalities and the conference is only over a few days, your meetings with a cabinet minister might be a grand total of five or ten minutes long. This year, delegates are still getting some of their meetings, but they don’t have to travel to Ottawa to do it. The bars and restaurants in downtown Ottawa will miss their dollars, but hard to argue that this is a terrible outcome — and not for the first time, I’m wondering if this is the kind of thing that we’ll keep doing after the pandemic is over.

Connecting across the province

Steve: Well, I hope not. I've been to many AMO conferences over the years and I can tell you, they were always great opportunities to establish relationships with political figures from all over the province. There's a real danger when you're a Toronto-based reporter in thinking that provincial issues stop at Steeles Avenue (the capital city's northern border).  Getting to these conferences and actually rubbing elbows with the mayor of Timmins, or New Liskeard, or Sault Ste. Marie, or Cochrane reminds you that there's a big province out there with issues nothing like what you'd see in the 416 or 905. So, it was a great learning experience and I hope those actual (rather than virtual) conferences come back.  Now, as for the education story I hinted at in my first comment, what are you hearing about the education minister's announcement last Friday? Is it allaying concerns about our schools reopening?

Dipping into the reserves

John Michael: Minister Lecce’s announcement that the province would allow school boards to dip into their reserves to fund return-to-school plans has hit two stumbling blocks so far. The first is practical: that money in reserves isn’t just sitting there, it’s (almost always) committed to future needs. Spending down those reserves during a pandemic carries the risk of leaving school boards short of funds for future commitments, if and when we ever get back to normal. The second problem is that money alone doesn’t solve the problem: the government, the school boards, and the teacher’s unions all need to come to an actual agreement about how kids return to class. The Toronto District School Board had proposed shrinking class sizes and sending kids back to school for a somewhat shorter school day (less than an hour in reduced class time), but the government shot that plan down over the weekend. The board and the ministry are still negotiating as we write this, and there’s dozens of other school boards across the province that will be looking to get the government’s sign-off before kids go back in about three weeks.

Steve: I remember thinking as he made his announcement, well, that's great that there's going to be millions more for improving ventilation systems which surely many schools will need. But I suspect there's just not enough time over the next few weeks for those infrastructure upgrades to happen. So what's Plan B? Maybe we'll hear more about it in the days ahead because I, like you, am still hearing a lot of concern about Plan A. 

Just a reminder...

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