Premier Doug Ford is adamant about one thing as the government prepares for the return to school: He’s not sending kids to the mall. Or to warehouses.
“I'm not going to be putting kids in strip malls or industrial buildings, that's for sure,” Ford said at his Monday press conference at Queen’s Park. And, then, before tagging in Education Minister Stephen Lecce to finish answering a reporter’s question, he added: “And then the other issue are the teachers.”
Both parts of the premier’s answer are worth drawing out to understand the political predicament the Tories find themselves in. Starting with the first part: it’s not actually crazy to suggest that school boards explore the option of strip malls and “industrial spaces.” Anyone with a child under the age of 10 has spent a lot of time in strip malls and industrial spaces, because many such spaces have been converted into indoor playgrounds and, pre-pandemic, at least, did a brisk trade in birthday parties. If a school board can sign a lease for a nearby storefront or warehouse and make it a safe space for kids, what’s the problem?
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Well, the word “safe” is part of the problem. Even before COVID-19, schools were equal parts protection and pedagogy. (My kid is too young to have learned about “hold and secure” incidents yet, but it’s only a matter of time.) School boards might be able to find spaces where classes could theoretically be taught, but whether they’d feel safe doing it would be another question entirely.
It’s potentially a solvable problem, at least in some cases, but it’s not the only problem the government faces. The premier’s mention of teachers is both important and revealing. The reality is that physical space is, in most parts of Ontario, not the key constraint facing school boards (or through them, the government). Rather, it’s personnel. A room isn’t a classroom without a teacher in it, after all. The government’s fundamental challenge is finding qualified teachers (and, in kindergarten, early childhood educators) to reduce class sizes to something closer to 15 or 20 students.
The Liberals have proposed hiring 20,000 elementary and secondary teachers, but the Tories largely consider that plan a joke. The basic arithmetic, though, is inescapable: if schools are to shrink class sizes, they’re going to need more teachers. In that light, the proposals put forward last month by the Toronto District School Board are intriguing: the least expensive would see cohorts of 15 for young elementary grades (JK through Grade 3) and cohorts of 20 for Grades 4 through 8. The TDSB estimated that would require 200 extra teachers at a cost of $20 million.
That’s a much more manageable cost for the government to bear if it comes to it, and it doesn’t require any magical thinking to imagine finding 200 extra educators. But it would still require some administrative flexibility: you can hire teachers off the long-term occasional list — supply teachers — but that just shifts the shortage: What would boards do when they inevitably needed supply teachers to fill gaps?
And, because the government is still run by Progressive Conservatives intent on balancing the budget, there’s the additional wrinkle of what you do with any new hires after the pandemic passes. Do you simply fire them or return them to the purgatory of the supply list? Do you try to shuffle some senior teachers into retirement to make room instead? It’s just another headache cherry on the headache sundae the government is looking at.
I’ve been repetitive on this point, but it really is true that the government is dealing with resource constraints that we can’t simply wish away. It might have been better, in retrospect, if the province had, back in March, abandoned any hope of returning to school for the 2019-20 year and started a crash effort to make schools safer for September. But it’s easy to forget how precarious even a September school restart looked not that long ago: Ontario was still seeing 400-plus new cases of COVID-19 in early June, before they began to fall rapidly later in the month.
But if the government faces real resource constraints, that doesn’t mean it gets to just throw up its hands and offer nothing but hopes and prayers. The parents who have kids in school in 2020 aren’t baby boomers — we're Gen X and older millennials. We don’t expect much from our government, because we've literally never known an era in which public goods were abundant and easy to access. We’ve never gotten cheap university tuition and sparkling new homes that could be afforded on an entry-level salary. Instead, we’ve spent our entire lives in the shadow of successive recessions and been told, regretfully and repeatedly, that the cupboard is bare.
In short, we don’t expect miracles. But we do expect the government to try. Plans such as the TDSB’s, which offers a substantial improvement in safety in exchange for modest additional expenses, are the kind of things the government should be tripping over itself to say yes to. Nothing is going to be perfect, and none of us is getting the 2020 we wanted. But the government can at least make the most of what it has at hand. Lord knows, we’ve all had to do that this year.