Ontario is taking ‘unnecessary risks’ with our kids’ education

OPINION: The premier says he’s doing all he can to protect our children. So where was the school plan for this year — and where’s the plan for September?
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Jun 04, 2021
Premier Doug Ford announced Wednesday that Ontario schools will remain closed. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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After weeks of questions on whether schools would reopen to in-person learning, this Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford announced that they would be closed until September.

“For a few weeks, it's just not worth it.”

You would be justified in thinking that quote came from Wednesday’s press conference — but no. That’s what Ford said almost exactly a year ago, on May 19, 2020, when schools shut down.

For many parents across the province, this feels like déjà vu.

A year ago, the premier said, “My commitment to parents is the health and safety of our kids will always come first. Nothing is more important.” 

This year, he said, “No one wants kids back in school more than I do. As your premier, these aren’t risks I am willing to take ... I know this is very difficult news. It was a hard choice to make, but I will not — I repeat, will not — take unnecessary risks with our children right now.”

Unnecessary risks. 

Our children. 

Our kids.

“We’ll use this time to continue investing in ventilation in our schools, because the decisions we made today will help us ensure a safe summer and most importantly a safe and normal return to school in September,” he said this week.

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Minister of Education Stephen Lecce announced last August that $500 million in funding would be “unlocked” to improve air quality and to accommodate physical distancing. This was after the government had faced criticisms that the back-to-school plan for September 2020 fell short when it came to protecting students and educators.

While the premier repeated this week that “the safety of our children is my top priority,” it was reported last week — some 10 months after Lecce’s announcement — that none of the elementary schools in the Thames Valley District School Board had seen ventilation upgrades.

If this were about avoiding “unnecessary risks” and Ford doing all he could do to protect “our children,” why didn’t the government do ALL it could make schools safe when they reopened in September 2020? Why weren’t classes smaller? Why weren’t classrooms better ventilated? Online learning doesn’t work for all students — why wasn’t there more action taken on universal broadband access?

When schools moved online in April 2021, the government could have decided to close them for good and focused on a plan for a safe reopening in September.

Instead, it waited until two days before the legislature adjourned for the summer holidays.

As they say in politics, timing is everything. 

(Now that the school question has an answer and parents have been left to lick their wounds, Ontarians can shift their attention to what really matters: patio season.)

Last week on The Agenda, CityNews journalist Cynthia Mulligan told me that the issue of school reopening had become highly divisive. Somehow it has been turned into “parents want kids to go back to school so that they can get a break.” Into “schools aren’t a daycare.” Into “patios don’t spread COVID-19 the way that schools do.” Into “it’s only a few weeks — what’s the big deal?”

Ford issued a public letter on May 27 asking for input on school reopening. In a May 29 “Response to the Premier of Ontario,” the  science table endorsed reopening on a regional basis. “While the pandemic was surging, school closures were a necessary step to control that surge. However, school closures create harm,” the response reads. “One month of in-person schooling will allow schools to re-establish contact with students.” The premier opted not to follow that advice.

Schools in Ontario were the first to close last year, and “our children” have been out of school longer than those of any other province in Canada. What began as emergency learning in response to the pandemic in 2020 has somehow become the status quo. There’s been an academic disruption in public schools in our province, and our schools have been closed for more than 20 weeks. 

“If we are going to start a debate of our schools and schooling by starting with the question ‘Do schools make a difference,’ we’ve lost the plot,” says Prachi Srivastava. “It’s like asking, ‘Do hospitals make a difference in survival rates in patients?’ You’ve lost the plot. You can’t ask that question. But, somehow, we’re asking that question.”

Srivastava is an associate professor of education and global development at Western University. Since last year, she has been working on the education emergency in Ontario and across the globe. She is a co-author of the education brief that wascommissioned by the Ontario science table and that informed its deliberations on schooling. 

The report examines the impacts of school disruptions caused by the pandemic. Some of its findings: Even as early as last fall, students had fallen behind by several months. Inequity has been exacerbated among already vulnerable groups. Interruptions to education could have a potential lifetime earning loss amounting to $1.6 trillion. Yes, more than a trillion. Jeff Bezos, eat your heart out. 

Let’s also remember that children aren’t doing this alone. Education disruptions have affected teachers, educators, and principals. At a time when teachers are needed the most, Srivastava warns, there is a labour-supply shortage — and she says we need to prepare for a long-term emergency in education. 

“We have been talking about the health effects [of the pandemic] as an emergency because people are literally dying,” says Srivastava. “The moment that we are all vaccinated, people think that once everyone is vaccinated, we’re done. Even the health effects of this are not going to be done. The social consequences of this will certainly not be done. The tragedy is that the focus will continue to be on the immediate health effects and not the long-term issues.”

 The premier has called parents “true champions” and the “unsung heroes of the pandemic.”  

I am neither. I want to believe that, when he says, “I will not take unnecessary risks with our children right now” —  he means it. Yes, the province has allocated $31 million in funding for mental health. But what’s the point, when the province hasn’t done everything in its power to get kids learning in school, in person?

For months, the government said that schools were safe. Now, with cases much lower than they were when schools closed, it’s saying they should stay closed, and we should focus on summer. Meaning what — summer camp? As Srivastava says, “Summer camps do not replace the right to education that every child has.” As a refugee, I think of summer camps as adventures my classmates got to have. Unlike summer camp, education is a guaranteed right for all children. 

We can look back at all the things the government should have done. Unfortunately, we now have an opportunity to re-do last September. This time, we need real action, not empty rhetoric. 

Srivastava says that, to make schools safe, we need vaccinations for educators and students, smaller classes, and better ventilation. However, she says, “You need to include the health measures, but you need to have real education programming behind it — simply opening a school, simply opening the doors to a school, when we have had a year and a half of disruption, is not enough to mitigate the harms.” 

Some parents are asking for the option to have their children repeat a grade so that they don’t fall further behind. Srivastava says that in order to recover the learning loss of the pandemic, Ontario will need broad-based curriculum reform, targeted interventions and supports, and remedial education.

“I don’t see any discussion about what education measures we’re going to implement,” she says. “You can not just think that reopening a school will make everything better.”

For the sake of “our children,” I hope the premier listens to the experts — at least as much as he listened to Arthur.

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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