Schools are closed again. Can Doug Ford even explain why?

OPINION: We’ve just been told, for the fourth time, that kids have to stay home. We haven’t been told what that will accomplish — or what it’ll take to get them back in class
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 05, 2022
Premier Doug announced Monday that all publicly funded and private schools would move to remote learning from January 5 until at least January 17. (Chris Young/CP)

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I have a terrible suspicion that Doug Ford is trying to boost his re-election chances at the cost of jeopardizing the emotional and educational well-being of 2 million children in this province.

I really wish I did not feel this way. I would’ve much preferred to start my year here at TVO.org with something optimistic and forward-looking. Despite the obvious challenges we face right now — and will be dealing with for weeks and perhaps months to come — there really is cause for long-term optimism as regards COVID-19. The Omicron variant we are dealing with now has been confirmed by scientists the world over to be less threatening, on average, than previous variants (yes, I know it’s not harmless, but caution should not prevent us from accepting good news when it lands). Our vaccines, which we have now in abundance, are effective. We have therapeutics of apparently high efficacy on the horizon. High hopes for the year to come are objectively justified.

But none of that changes the fact that my kids are out of school, again.

All slogans grow stale and become punchlines eventually. But there is no slogan in more urgent need of retirement and hurling into a river than one we’ve heard often in Ontario since this pandemic began: “schools should be the last thing to close and the first thing to open.” It is a statement that has gone beyond meaninglessness and is now a literal insult to whomever it’s cruelly inflicted upon. We have spent almost two years reassuring one another that schools should be last to close and first to open, and yet, at the moment I write this, my two children are forbidden from being in their elementary school, but the malls are open. The slogan no longer serves any purpose as an aspirational goal or statement of commitment. It is useful now only as a demonstration of the Ford government’s manifest failure. It has failed, again, to do the thing it keeps insisting it values. 

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This is, in fact, the fourth time Ontario has shut down schools in a sweeping, across-the-board fashion. The first three were difficult but understandable decisions. When COVID-19 arrived, we were completely unprepared and had no real working knowledge of the virus. A widespread societal lockdown was the brutal price we paid to shore up our hospitals, learn about the threat, and reinforce societal weak points where we could. (We didn’t do a great job at this, as the catastrophe in our long-term-care homes showed, but that at least is what the lockdown was intended to do.) The second and third school shutdowns also made sense as time-buying measures. We either did not have vaccines then or did not have them in the necessary quantity. We had to buy yet more time, and closing schools was part of how we did that. At least for the second and third closures, we had a reasonable sense of how much time would be required to finish the bulk of the vaccination campaign.

But we have done that now. The overwhelming majority of Ontarians 12 and over — 88 per cent! — have at least two doses. Four million now have three doses. Vaccinations for those aged five to 11 are well underway; roughly 45 per cent have received a first dose. If school closures are a time-buying measure, what are we buying time to do, exactly? And given the incredible speed of Omicron’s spread, is there any realistic chance that we will be able to put the time to meaningful use before the virus swamps us anyway?

I spent too much of my holidays talking with infectious-disease experts and epidemiologists about this exact question. It was a difficult spot to put them in, because most of them are very conscious of their role in maintaining public morale and confidence. But very few experts out there are suggesting that any conceivable public-health intervention we could contemplate would do much more than slow Omicron’s spread — and not by all that much. 

I do not deny that there may be value in that slowing. All things being equal, more time is better than less. Vaccinating and boosting more people will obviously provide benefits. But every action we take in this pandemic must be subjected to even a basic cost-benefit analysis. And no one is telling me what the specific benefit of this latest school closure is. No one is telling me what it will specifically accomplish. No one is telling me, specifically, why it is necessary or what the trade-off would be: What we would not be able to do on the public-health front without closing schools? No one in the Ford government is telling me, or anyone else in this province, what this sacrifice we are imposing on 2 million students will gain us in time, resources, or lives saved. No one is telling us what the metric for reopening the schools will be or what must be accomplished during the closure to make reopening feasible.

How can we possibly do a cost-benefit analysis of this, one of the most dreadful steps, second only to yet again deferring tens of thousands of medical tests and procedures, if the government taking that step won’t quantify its benefits? We know the costs, and we’re paying them. What will we get back? No one knows. Or at least no one in authority has bothered to say. 

Instead, we’ve just been told, for the fourth time, that the kids have to stay home, and the premier and the health minister and the chief medical officer, during their Monday press conference, were all palpably uncomfortable every time they were asked when the schools might reopen again. The education minister wasn’t there at all.

The overwhelming majority of Ontarians have shown that they are prepared to sacrifice, even if only grudgingly, for the sake of their fellow citizens. But we have also always had a sense that the sacrifice would produce some tangible benefit. First, we secured PPE and prevented a health-care meltdown. Then, we held on until vaccines were available. And then, we bought more time to allow those vaccines to be administered at scale.

This time, every public-health expert seems to agree that Omicron is going to sweep the province and that whatever is going to happen in the health-care system is essentially baked in. When we ask the government what we are accomplishing with school closures, we don’t get specific answers. When we ask when the schools will be safe to reopen — or even just what would be necessary to enable a safe reopening — we don’t get specific answers. When we ask whether closing the schools will avoid or meaningfully mitigate a health-care crush, we don’t get specific answers. 

This latest closure has left me with the unpleasant suspicion that the government has concluded that it cannot stop what’s coming and is trying to figure out how it can position itself so that it can claim, when this is all over, that it did everything it possibly could have.

Or, more bluntly, as I said at the top, this looks like the provincial government trying to save itself by mandating, yet again, that millions of children take another one for the team, for however long it takes for the government to feel as if it’s given itself enough cover to run with come election time. 

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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