Ontario’s back-to-school plan is straight out of the MLB’s disastrous playbook

OPINION: Major League Baseball came up with a plan (of sorts) to play during the pandemic. It didn’t go well. Now Ontario is headed in the same direction
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jul 30, 2020
At least 15 players and some staff that travelled with the Miami Marlins have tested positive for COVID-19. (Julio Cortez/CP/AP)

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On Thursday, the government made a big announcement about the future of schooling in Ontario, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’ll get to that in a minute. But, first, let’s talk baseball.

Major League Baseball, in contrast with the other North American major leagues, took a fairly, ahem, lax approach to the current season. The NBA and the NHL, for instance, adopted “bubble cities”: basketball has found a home in Florida, and hockey is divided between Toronto and Edmonton; the teams are strictly isolated in hotels when not competing or practising. Baseball, though, took a much more relaxed stance — teams travel freely across North America and play in stadiums all across the land. There are no rules limiting players to their hotels when not on the field. It seemed like a bad idea ... and it was. Almost immediately, the Miami Marlins had a major outbreak. At least 15 players and some staff that travelled with the team are now infected. The Marlins are isolated in Philadelphia, running down a quarantine clock, and the league is now trying to figure out what to do with the season schedule.

But that’s not the interesting part. Nor is it the part that should concern Ontario parents. That’s what happened to the Phillies.

Much of the attention has been on the Marlins. They didn’t interest me — they got hit first, maybe, but it was likely inevitable. What did interest me was watching to see what would happen to the Philadelphia Phillies, the team the Marlins had been playing when they suffered their outbreak. This was a fascinating real-world test of COVID-19 in the open. Of course the Marlins infected one other. They were travelling and living together, practising together, probably relaxing and dining together, too. But did they pass it on? Baseball isn’t a contact sport; it’s played in open air-stadiums. That sounds ... safeish, right?

At first, the news was good. Testing revealed no outbreaks. But, on Thursday, the Phillies announced they now had two COVID-19 infections — a coach and a clubhouse staff member. Their season is now on hold, too. It’s possible that this is a coincidence, but it’s just as likely that this is exactly what it looks like: the Marlins’ outbreak jumped to the Phillies.

I’d just read the news about the Phillies, who were set to play the Blue Jays this weekend, when Premier Doug Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce, and other assorted and sundry provincial officials stepped up to a podium and announced Ontario’s return-to-school plan. Full details can be read here; for our purposes, suffice it to say that it’s ... not quite as aggressive as it could be.

Permit me a sincere comment: the government probably could not have come up with a plan that everyone would have liked. The situation is likely unsolvable. Lecce has been tasked with reconciling the irreconcilable — it is essential to open schools, as normally as possible, for economic reasons and for the benefit of the children, but it is impossible to safely open the schools.

You figure it out. We must do the undoable, bear the unbearable, and there really isn’t anyone arguing otherwise. Keeping schools closed indefinitely isn’t an option. Fully remote learning isn’t feasible for many. So we must open the schools even while granting that doing so is dangerous.

Still — and I say this as someone sympathetic to the government’s need to get the schools open and well aware of the impossible jam they are in — the plan is underwhelming. You can see what the Tories are trying to do. Smaller classes and more virtual learning for high-school kids makes sense: they’re biologically more like adults and thus at greater risk and likely more effective spreaders; they’re also better able to learn remotely. Adding more nurses to schools and keeping elementary classes in full-day cohorts, so that any outbreaks would be isolated, also makes sense. More frequent cleaning of schools and school buses is good. A greater emphasis on keeping students at home if they show any symptoms, no matter how mild, is literally the least we can do.

And yet. And yet. This doesn’t seem like a plan that is going to work. Younger kids will be in full-sized classrooms, without mandatory masks. Teachers will be masked but stuck inside boxes all day, breathing in sneezes. The entire concept of Ontario’s social bubbles will break down the first day of class. The absence of smaller classes or mandatory masks for the youngest children seems more like a surrender than a proposal.

That’s how a lot of it feels, to be honest. The entire plan has a whiff of MLB decision-making to it: a choice to just proceed, knowing it’ll probably blow up at some point but hoping that the inevitable failure will be minor and containable.

Maybe it will be. Maybe we’ll miss a second wave altogether, and our numbers will stay at the pleasantly low level they’re at today. We might get lucky. This could work out. That’s what the MLB was counting on, too, mind you, and its plan lasted three days before blowing up.

I want Ontario’s schools to open. I want my kids back in class, for their sake. But, mostly, I want them to be safe. And I don’t want to worry that they’re spreading sickness to others who are more vulnerable. No plan could have offered us guarantees. But this one doesn’t even offer much hope.

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