When it comes to school reopening, prayers are not enough

OPINION: Doug Ford says the government’s going to do everything it can to make its back-to-school plan work and “pray to God that everyone’s safe.” Teachers and families need more than that
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Aug 12, 2020
Under the Tories’ back-to-school plan, class sizes will remain at pre-pandemic level. (iStock/ manonallard)

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Remember five months ago when Premier Doug Ford told us to follow through with our March break plans and reassured us that we could go away and “have fun”? We know how that played out. Yet he’s asking us to do pretty much the same with his government’s back-to-school plan.

“Let’s give this a shot, at least,” he said last week at one of his daily pressers, adding, “We’re going to give it everything we can and make sure that we move forward and pray to God that everyone’s safe. That’s what I want. Just the kids to be safe.”

I’ve been thinking about this statement a lot — “pray to God that everyone’s safe.”

After almost five months of telling us what to do, this government is giving us prayer.

If you had heard that comment in isolation, you might have thought that the Tories had given it their all: Followed public-health officials’ recommendations to keep classrooms small and improve ventilation in classrooms. Hired more teachers to accommodate smaller classes. Worked to address the challenges with online learning that had been identified in June. Incorporated some outdoor classes.

How did the government actually prepare for this upcoming school year? By all accounts, everything will be much the same as it was this past school year, with a few tweaks. Class sizes will be the same. Having students in high school going only every other day is a glaring example of phoning it in.

I’m not going to rehash Ford’s claims that it wasn’t the government’s plan and his attempt to lay responsibility for it at the feet of the health professionals. I’m not going to bring up the opaqueness of their advice or the fact that the Tories cherry-picked it. The government is going to government.

What I want to know is whether Ford, whose children are now grown, would trust this plan if his kids were in the public-school system during a global pandemic? How many members of his caucus will “give this a shot” with their own children?

Ford has said that, if parents are uncomfortable with sending their kids to school, they have a choice: “They don’t have to put their kids in school. They can keep them home and do online learning.”

This when study after study shows that this pandemic has affected women more than men. One from the Royal Bank of Canada, the CBC reports, found that it had “pushed women’s participation in the labour force down to its lowest level in three decades.” I guess Ford’s assumption that there is someone at home with nothing but time then holds true.

The reality is that many of us will have no choice but to send our kids to school. Mortgages need to be paid, jobs need to be held onto, and kids need to learn. We are not trained to be teachers. Some of us will have the resources to create “pandemic pods“; others will be forced to leave our jobs so that we can stay home in order to manage the workload and keep our families safe. It’s clear that this will increase social and economic inequality — and that should concern us all.

I cannot imagine the kind of anxiety teachers must be feeling. Yes, some are ready to go back. But imagine being a teacher and seeing the emphasis placed on children being at less risk from the coronavirus and not on the fact that teachers are more vulnerable and at higher risk of serious illness. How eager would any one of us be to return? And what about the argument for deeming teachers essential front-line workers? When these educators became teachers, they weren’t required to swear they would be willing to risk their lives. So why would we expect them to do that now? Like those working for minimum wage in our grocery stores, teachers make our lives easier: that shouldn’t be what drives us to ignore their concerns.

Then there’s the question of how receptive and nurturing teachers can be while surrounded by dozens of little children, any one of whom could give them a life-threatening disease. And what if you’re a teacher with children — how fluid are your choices then?

But if teachers decide it is too dangerous to go back to the classroom and then go on strike, they will inevitably be blamed for derailing another school year when all they had to do was to “give this a shot.”

It’s hard to blame educators for raising questions about the plan given that some aspects of it seem to fly in the face of the government’s public-health directives.

While we’re being told that the class sizes will stay as is — currently a maximum average of 24.5 children in a class, although numbers can be higher: my son’s class was 29 students last year — we’re also being told that our social circles will remain capped at 10 people until at least January.

“This pandemic’s not over; it’s going to continue to keep going,” Ford said last week. “In my opinion, this is going to continue until we get a vaccine. You have to be on guard constantly. As soon as we start getting reckless and careless and everyone’s partying away, it’s going to be a problem.”

Yet having classrooms with 30-plus people is apparently okay. It shouldn’t be difficult for anyone in health to say, in no uncertain terms, that schools should remain closed unless physical distancing can be enforced. That means going smaller, if classes are held indoors.

And, yes, kudos to the Ontario government for being the first in the country to shut down schools in March. But what was the point of all those sacrifices if we’re going to undo all this work with a plan that could have been better?

The premier said on Friday that “one size doesn’t fit all,” adding, “We’re so Toronto-centric here. Forget about the rest of the province. Forget about the folks in North Bay.”

Yes, one size doesn’t fit all. There are parts of this province with lower community spread, with limited or no access to broadband. The plan for those regions shouldn’t be the same as the one for Toronto and the surrounding area.

If the premier is as flexible as he says, he should listen to the alarm bells being rung by parents, the unions, and public-health experts.

“We’re flexible. We have to be flexible ... my number one concern is to protect the children and make sure that parents feel comfortable,” he said Friday. “My number one job is to protect those kids. And I don’t care what we have to do to protect them. We’ll protect them.”

For the sake of us all, I hope he means it.

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