Ontario needs to take opening schools as seriously as opening bars

OPINION: Doug Ford says that bars and restaurants must reopen. We need that same determination for full-time schooling in September
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 14, 2020
For weeks now, the government’s default plan has been a “hybrid” model that would see kids attend schools only part-time. (Cole Burston/CP)

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For two years and counting, I have mostly resisted the urge to traffic in easy outrage while writing about the Ford government. Not that I haven’t periodically been outraged, but I honestly don’t think it’s the best use of my time or — since I work for a public broadcaster — Ontario’s dollars. Instead, I’ve leaned in hard on doing the work of explaining what’s going on as best I can, often on pretty obscure topics (last week, for example, I wrote about Bill 197’s changes to land-use law). My theory has been that a lot of people tuned into provincial politics for the first time when Doug Ford was elected (he and his late brother had that effect on people) and that, whether you love or hate this government, the value I could provide as a journalist was to help people start from the same facts.

So understand me, please, when I say that, for the first time in two years, I really do not understand this government’s thinking at all, and I have no idea what to tell the public about it.

I understand the desire to reopen bars and restaurants. The businesses want to open: they very likely won’t lack for customers when they do. And, perhaps top of mind for this government, there are perceived limits to how much public support they can offer businesses going forward. Especially across the broad swath of northern Ontario and much of rural Ontario, case counts really are legitimately low enough that there’s a reasonable belief that bars won’t lead to major outbreaks. 

What has left me and a lot of other parents totally confused and verging on furious is that the government has approached reopening bars and restaurants as an imperative — last Friday, during an announcement in Woodbridge, the premier said, “We have to open up the bars. We have to open up restaurants inside … We have to get people back to work.” — while leaving us in limbo on reopening the province’s schools in September.

Even yesterday, as the premier and education minister teased more good news to come, they hedged and caveated with a reminder about the risks to students from reopening schools. For weeks now, the government’s default plan has been a “hybrid” model that would see kids attend schools only part-time — something that looks largely unworkable for all but the most privileged minority of households.

Nobody denies that there’s at least some risk from reopening schools. The controversy among medical professionals generally seems to be about how best to manage those risks while weighing them against the costs of continued closures to parents, educators, and children. But this can’t simply be a case of abstract risks, because reopening bars and restaurants is incredibly risky, too. Numerous jurisdictions have seen their COVID-19 cases spiral out of control after reopening bars and restaurants. Perhaps most concerning is the state of California, which had seemed to have the pandemic largely under control but has since had to resume a painful lockdown — now Los Angeles and San Diego will not be opening their schools on schedule.

For some parents, the sight of bars and restaurants reopening looks an awful lot like the province giving up on schools reopening in September. That might be overly pessimistic, but, then, nothing since March has given anyone a lot of reason for optimism. For many parents, distance learning didn’t “work” in any real sense of the word. It was somewhere between a waste of time and a disaster, depending on the teacher, child, and parent. But families endured it because they understood the government had no better options. September is a different story: the government has had months to prepare, the people of Ontario have done their part to fight the pandemic, and parents are looking for something more reassuring than the government’s reliance on e-learning to get them through. (Full disclosure: TVO is a provider of online-learning courses for Ontario high-school students.)

Parents don’t get to opt out of parenting, and we don’t get to raise our children over Zoom. If the schools aren’t open in September, the likely alternative is not another semester, or schoolyear, of muddling through. It’s that parents — in most cases, mothers — will drop out of the workforce to care for their children. Whatever economic recovery the government tries to nurture through the rest of the year could evaporate as household budgets take a massive hit and consumer spending drops with it.

I don’t want to see bars and restaurants closed just so that my child can go back to school. I don’t think that’s necessarily the trade-off. What I, and many other parents, are looking for is a government that’s as enthusiastic about schools reopening as it is about bars and restaurants. A government that will accept anything less than full-time schooling only as an absolute last resort. Instead, with its emphasis on a “hybrid mode,” the government has been implicitly planning for chaos in the fall as Plan A.

It is, undoubtedly, a hard problem to solve. Dealing with it will take more money for public education (and the at least temporary hiring of more unionized public educators), something this government may grumble about. But open bars are not a substitute for schools, and parents can’t drink away their problems in September.

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