Stop comparing patios to schools

OPINION: Some Ontarians are furious that patios will open while schools remain shut. The frustration is understandable — but the argument doesn’t make any sense
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jun 02, 2021
Ontario will see a limited reopening of some outdoor businesses, including restaurant patios, while kids are not in school. (Chris Young/CP)

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Premier Doug Ford announced Wednesday that Ontario schools will remain closed. I think it was the right call. I haven’t been shy about my opinion. But I also understand that this is controversial, that a lot of people are going to be very upset about this, and that there’re genuinely good arguments on the other side. I wouldn’t have had any real problem with some kind of school reopening if I had confidence that this government had done the work to make that opening safe and effective. It didn’t. So here we are. 

Looking at a lot of the reaction online, reading articles in other publications, and even just talking to the parents in my own life, I’ve been struck by one argument that keeps coming up over and over. A lot of people are confused, if not outright angry, that we will see a limited reopening of some outdoor businesses, mainly restaurant patios, while kids are not in school. We also know that the government itself was nervous about the optics of having people chowing down on nachos and wings (and golfing!) while the kids were still out of in-class school. 

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This is an entirely understandable emotional reaction. But it’s not a smart one. If you actually think about this for 15 seconds, you will realize that schools and patios are not at all comparable — and that treating them as if they were isn’t doing anyone any favours. 

Look, I get the frustration. My kids are home, too. I’ve seen the real toll it has taken on them, despite heroic efforts by teachers to remain connected and keep the kids engaged. And, gosh, yeah, I get the stress of parents. Even from my rather privileged perch, good Lord, it’s a lot to handle. But we still need to keep a cool head. The people thinking that schools versus patios is a good comparison have lost the plot. Patios and classrooms are not the same thing. They just aren’t. 

From a societal perspective, schools are much more important than patios. But opening patios is safer than opening schools. So we can do the less important thing first, because it’s safer. This isn’t hard.

Reopening schools now would mean putting dozens of people, drawn from many different households — only some of whom will be partially vaccinated — inside often poorly ventilated indoor rooms. Opening patios, especially with restrictions ... means none of those things. Refusing to open patios because schools are closed would make about as much sense as re-closing the golf courses in a gesture of solidarity. Which is to say, none.

Like I said above, there are a lot of really good arguments to make in favor of reopening schools. “But patios are open!” is not one of them. 

Schools are uniquely important. They are also a unique challenge. As I noted in my last column here, this really did come down to a matter of days and weeks. We are racing two different clocks. One of them is getting vaccinations up to a sufficient level to provide general-population-level protection, even against new variants (or emerging ones). The other is the scheduled end of the school year. If the school year were ending a month later, or if our vaccination campaign had moved a month quicker, we would be having a very different conversation. But they didn’t, so we aren’t. 

The conversation about schools is fundamentally different from a conversation about reopening basically anything else, because schools already have start and end points. With all respect to our suffering restaurant owners, there is no particular reason to open a patio on one day as opposed to any other. It’s not like that with schools. We had two fairly inflexible options before us: rush them open now and then close them on schedule a few weeks from now, before we’re done vaccinating, or just open them on schedule in September, after we’re mostly done with the jabs. This is a unique consideration. Comparisons to any other business that ignore this are not intellectually honest.

And there actually is a reasonably good analogue to schools in Ontario’s reopening plan. As I noted above, classrooms are enclosed, often poorly ventilated indoor environments where many people from different households mix. I don’t spend a lot of time in church, but this does not strike me as a particularly bad way to describe many of the houses of worship I have, for various reasons, set foot inside in recent years. Indeed, houses of worship are probably the most realistic apples-to-apples comparison to a classroom that exists in the province’s framework.

And guess what? They’re not scheduled to reopen until Step 2, and even then, only at 15 per cent of rated capacity. The earliest we are scheduled to hit Step 2, at present, is early July. There’s some speculation we might move that forward somewhat, but that would still mean late June … when we’d be closing the schools on schedule anyway. This is a useful comparison. Patios to schools? Not so much.

It would probably have been safe to reopen schools in some areas of the province. It might have been safe to reopen schools for everyone if the government had bothered to make common-sense investments and better decisions, such as prioritizing the vaccination of all educational staff. 

But since that didn’t happen, we find ourselves where we are — dealing with an emerging new variant that we can’t yet effectively track and an as-yet-incomplete first-dose-stage vaccination campaign. We have every reason to believe that, by the time schools are scheduled to reopen as usual in the fall, we will have substantially completed our second-dose phase of the vaccination campaign. We will also hopefully by then be better able to track the variant that emerged from India, B.1.617.2, which the World Health Organization has now dubbed the “Delta” variant. (Nothing clarifies things like the Greek alphabet, I always say.)

Be angry. Be frustrated. Make counter-arguments to the government’s decision. I’ve got a ton of time and patience for all of that. But let’s be clear about one thing. Comparing schools to patios is not useful, because an indoor classroom with dozens of people isn’t the same thing as a table of four, outside, widely spaced out from other tables. It just isn’t. People pretending not to understand this are venting. It’s okay to vent. There’s a lot to vent about. There’s been no shortage of bad decisions made by this government. Many of them have led us to where we are today. But the decision it made was the right one.

And if you wanna argue with me about it, well, if you’re buying, let’s meet at a patio a few weeks from now and have it out.

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