Why Ontario’s school plan could become a nightmare scenario for the Tories

OPINION: The research is still evolving. But if it turns out that schools are a major driver of COVID-19 spread, the plans this government made — and changed — will come back to haunt them
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 21, 2021
The role that schools play in spreading COVID-19 remains unknown and controversial. (Lars Hagberg)

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My experience of last year — as a journalist covering the fast-moving pandemic and as a citizen living during it — mostly involved just trying to keep up. It didn’t make any sense, personally or professionally, to bet on much beyond the next few hours. But, still, in August and September, I was genuinely baffled when Ontario rolled out its back-to-school plan. Although I’d made a conscious effort to go into the school year with zero expectations, the official plan still struck me as surprisingly lax.

If you read back through my archive here at TVO.org, you’ll see what I mean. In July, I wrote a whole series of articles examining the challenge of safely reopening Ontario’s schools. I interviewed an infectious-disease expert, a teacher, a custodian, and a union official. What’s remarkable, with hindsight, were the things we took for granted as being obviously part of the plan — but never materialized.

My interview with the disease expert Zain Chagla, of McMaster University, holds up surprisingly well, actually. We could rerun it almost verbatim today, and it wouldn’t seem out of place. But the teacher, the custodian, and the union official were all assuming that certain steps would be taken, and they weren’t.

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That’s not a criticism — I assumed those steps would be taken, too. We assumed that class sizes would be shrunk and spread out. We talked about even using other sites as improvised schools to lower the density per classroom. We assumed that there would be an effort to keep students separated by six feet while indoors. We assumed that Ontario would be scrambling to find more staff, not letting staff go as parents pulled their kids out to opt for virtual schooling instead of in-person instruction.

We were wrong about those things — right about others, but wrong about those. The school year for Ontario kids has been far from normal, but it’s been more like normal than we expected in July.

And I have to confess, I’ve continued to find that strange. All the people in a place to know what to expect did not expect what we got. But now, we might have some explanation as to why: the plan changed.

The news came in a big report by the Toronto Star, which obtained hundreds of pages of documents from the Ontario government via a Freedom of Information request. The pages document the government’s evolving plans regarding the reopening of schools and how those plans were scaled back to simplify the process and save costs. Reporter Rachel Mendleson covers how ambitious targets for testing and isolating cases were reduced, but also touches on the issue I referenced above — class sizes. Forgive me a meaty quote, but it’s worth reading the section on this finding in full:

In the “Approach to reopening schools” document released last June, the [education] ministry said school boards should “maintain a limit of 15 students in a typical classroom at one time.” This recommendation was drawn from a key aspect of public health advice to “maintain 2 meters of separation,” the ministry said.

While Ontario’s back-to-school plan largely adhered to this recommendation in high schools, the ministry did not impose a 15-person cap in elementary schools. The province faced intense criticism from parents, school boards and teachers.

Due to funding constraints, the TDSB was only able to cap classes at 15 in kindergarten and 20 in older grades in designated hotspot neighbourhoods.

It’s a fascinating report, and I’d encourage everyone to read it in full. But that section, in particular, brought a sense of relief. I hadn’t been crazy! There really was a sense that this was going to be the plan — until it wasn’t.

In fairness to the government, the school reopening last fall went better than many expected, myself included. I expected schools to be closed again by Thanksgiving, and they actually made it as far as Christmas. The role that schools play in spreading COVID-19 — elementary schools, in particular — remains unknown and controversial.

The prevailing wisdom thus far has been that schools don’t drive transmission in a community, but reflect it: a community with high rates of transmission will see many cases in schools, but cases in schools won’t meaningfully drive spread in the community. The Wall Street Journal, however, reported just last week that many European jurisdictions are examining their second-wave data and concluding that schools are indeed contributing to the spread. It’s deeply frustrating to be this far into the pandemic and still not have so basic a question answered. Chagla said in his July interview that “the jury was still out” on the role schools played in transmission. And, as I said above, his interview remains depressingly applicable today.

In a way, the government has left itself vulnerable to emerging science. If schools are one day definitively proven to have been a minor, at most, contributor to the spread of the pandemic, it’s safe, at least on this front. But if that recent WSJ story is joined by others reporting on an emerging scientific consensus that schools were actually a major driver, and if the schools were left more vulnerable by a conscious government choice, that’s a nightmare scenario for a government that’s already vulnerable on a number of files.

But it’s not just — or even primarily — a political issue. Some of Ontario’s schools are reopening already, and the rest are scheduled to in coming weeks. The overall COVID-19 situation in the province seems to be improving, but that’s with the schools closed. With new variants being discovered in Ontario, opening the schools is a risk. Perhaps one worth taking, given the high cost of keeping students out of the classroom. But the simple truth is, the government is going to have to make a choice, soon, without knowing key information. There’s a word for that. It’s a bet.

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