Six weeks ago, Ontario’s education system seemed on the verge of mayhem.
The teachers’ unions were staging rotating strikes, causing significant disruption in the lives of parents and students. In fairness, contracts had expired at the beginning of the school year, and yet the teachers were still at the front of the class doing their thing. They were furious at the lack of progress in the negotiations, but, still, the vast majority of them were showing up to do their jobs and organize extracurricular activities.
But the fact was, the pot was boiling for a bunch of reasons. The education minister, Stephen Lecce (MPP for King–Vaughan), was standing firm on introducing some component of online learning to the secondary-school years. And he was adamant about following Treasury Board guidelines that said wages could go up by only 1 per cent per year. The teachers objected to online learning for two reasons: first, it was a pretty obvious effort by the government to avoid having to hire more teachers, and second, the minister actually couldn’t produce any studies showing that mandatory online courses deliver better outcomes than having a sage on the stage. (Full disclosure: TVO is one of the province’s partners in digital learning.)
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The union leaders wanted more money for their members (after all, it’s their job to advocate for that), but they also wanted the province to restore funding they said had been cut from special education and other areas.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and all those problems magically disappeared.
Once Premier Doug Ford announced that he was shutting down the schools, the teachers lost all bargaining power they might have had. Their rotating job actions were rendered meaningless. Teachers couldn’t disrupt the education system any more than COVID-19 already had.
As it became apparent that we all had much bigger missions to fulfil (like, just staying alive), the unions also realized that the optics of holding out for more pay when health-care workers were going without life-saving masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment were awful.
And, so, they settled. One by one, they came to agreements with the Ministry of Education. Even the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, the last holdout, could hold out no more.
The other major effect this pandemic has had on the education system is that almost no one is protesting against online learning anymore. The fact is, the only formal learning happening among Ontario students nowadays is virtual. Two months ago, Lecce couldn’t convince anyone that even two mandatory online course credits would be appropriate for the education system. Today, most parents I talk to seem happy that at least some formal education is happening; it’s all mandatory, and it’s all virtual.
During Ford’s daily briefing, he’s always accompanied by a few cabinet ministers with portfolios relevant to that day’s developments. On April 17, Lecce was there and boasted: “We took 2 million kids and pivoted to distance learning. We launched the most ambitious virtual learning in this country.” He then praised Apple and Rogers TV for offering 21,000 free iPads and free Wi-Fi, respectively, to families in need.
Plenty of teachers on Twitter then pointed out that it wasn’t the minister who had made virtual learning happen for 2 million Ontario students. “We teachers did it!” they said. Lecce might have made the decision, but it surely wouldn’t have happened as efficiently as it has without the co-operation of Ontario’s teachers. However, given the breakneck pace at which news is happening these days, Lecce’s perhaps inappropriate boast very quickly turned into yesterday’s news.
A little more than three weeks ago, I interviewed Lecce on The Agenda. And I couldn’t help but ask him this question:
“Do you not see the irony that, without this awful pandemic, you’d still be in the midst of a terrible education crisis?”
I think I detected a hint of a smile when Lecce answered that he’d just called all the union presidents personally — twice, in fact, that week. He’d told them, he said, that “lives are at stake and it requires all of us to put things aside and collaborate for the kids and the staff. I’m grateful for the mutual partnership we’re having.”
And what about the fact that we’re no longer talking about just two credits for secondary students only — but mandatory online learning for all students?
“It may simply underscore the need for embracing some form of modernization of the system or a backstop if there’s a natural disaster or pandemic,” he said. “But there’s lessons learned here for the future.”
The biggest lesson? It’s good to be good. But it’s better to be lucky (even if it does seem strange to call this luck).
Just ask Stephen Lecce.