Five days ago, I asked here what the plan was. Ontario’s COVID-19 numbers were all getting worse. They’ve gotten even worse since — we are setting case-count and hospitalization records almost every day, and the rolling averages and trend lines are terrible. Waiting this out isn’t going to work. There is clearly so much community transmission right now that only active measures will meaningfully reduce the spread and allow us to escape the situation we’re now in. And that escape, even if efficiently executed, is still going to take months. Those months are going to be terrible.
We still don’t have a plan. But a big development was announced on Thursday: the province is extending school closures at least another two weeks in southern Ontario.
I don’t want this column to become a political analysis — our problems are so huge right now that a political analysis would be dangerously narrow and facile. But I cannot resist a political observation: something truly bizarre happened this week with Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
Elementary-school students in southern Ontario were scheduled to return to in-classroom learning on January 11 — this coming Monday. That was announced before the break. Our situation has deteriorated steadily and obviously since then. Case counts are soaring upward, the hospitals are reeling, we have broken through our ICU-capacity redline, temporary morgues and field hospitals have both been forced into operation this week, and Ontario is preparing to transport patients from hot zones to areas with some beds available — a desperate move that will buy the hot zones (large cities) days, at best, before the lesser-affected areas (small populations, mostly rural) are saturated. This is a bad, bad situation, and it’s an obviously bad situation.
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And, yet, all week, as the above was being reported, Lecce was proactively reiterating that schools would reopen on January 11 as planned. It wasn’t a one-off, idle mention. He was releasing statements and tweeting them out to make sure as many people as possible knew that Ontario was sticking with the plan. Until it suddenly wasn’t.
What the hell happened? There are three possibilities, none of them encouraging, and I have no real sense of which one is true. The first is that, as has often been the case with this government, the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing and that Lecce continued to reiterate the plan, in good faith, unaware that it was about to be changed. The second is that, as has also often been the case with this government, Ford dug in and held on and held on and then buckled under pressure and ordered a sudden reversal when the political cost of staying on course became too high to ignore.
The third possibility, of course, is that the situation is deteriorating so quickly that a sharp correction, at the last minute, was necessary to avoid a disaster.
Like I said. None of those options is great.
But here we are. I write this column on Thursday evening and plan to update it after the premier’s remarks on Friday morning (you’ll read it shortly thereafter, if all goes to plan). The reason I’m doing it this way — and, more to the point, why I’m telling you, the reader, that I’m doing it this way — is that I’m currently a full-time teaching assistant to two elementary-school students: my daughter and son are both learning remotely this week.
My daughter has adapted well; she’s able to handle her computer and her French-immersion instruction without too much active input from her old man. My younger son, though, is in his first year of French immersion and has relatively basic computer skills. He’s struggling to both assimilate the French language and adapt to the technical demands of online learning, and needs constant help. He’s getting better! Every day has been better than the last … for him, anyway. I’m doing my best, but it’s hard. I don’t speak French. His rudimentary fluency in that new language is already superior to my grasp of it.
So that’s one lesson learned, I suppose: it’s hard to teach kids in a language you don’t yourself speak.
But, overall, I’ve found the experience ... surprisingly good? I speak from a position of extraordinary privilege. I am able to shift my work to the evening hours and be available during the day. We had enough computers lying around to give each kid their own machine; plus, we have a high-speed internet connection that can handle all the Zooming. My wife is herself a teacher and fluently bilingual. She is teaching virtually herself during the working hours but can print off materials and write me French-language cheat-sheet notes at night so I can keep up during the day. If my puppy would stop trying to eat all non-organic objects in the house while everyone is either on or supervising a Zoom, we’d be doing fine.
So, yes, one reckless basset hound aside, my situation is about optimal. Granted. But my experience has also convinced me that a form of virtual learning could work in many circumstances. Not all, but many. A child who has internet access and a device, who can manage their own technology, and who has no language barriers could probably thrive in online learning, as students across the province have found out since classes began in September. That would cover a lot of our students. Not all — many families don’t have the ability to assign a parent to supervision, or access to technology or to a stable, high-speed internet connection. But it could work where the stars align.
Overall, though, we’re back to my question in Monday’s column — the crisis is bad, it’s getting worse, and what’s the plan? Closing the schools might have been a political necessity or it might have been a way of keeping the growth in cases down. But will it actually flatten the curve? Lower it? If the province has been right all along that schools are not a major source of transmission, then shutting them will not significantly lower transmission. It’s simple math. So what are we doing? How are we going to lower the curve?
Bruce Arthur said it well in the Toronto Star on Friday when he said that closing schools is buying us time and that we need to use that time well. Indeed. But, sadly and somewhat bafflingly, the question I asked a week ago still remains: What’s the plan? Premier Doug Ford said Friday that the modelling update coming early next week is full of bad news. He called it a wake-up call. But he doesn’t seem to have woken up himself. So I leave the reader on Friday with the same question as I did on Monday: What’s the plan?