Why the government should spend its summer thinking about September

OPINION: Any widespread restart of the economy depends on schools reopening. Right now, Ontario doesn’t really have a plan
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jun 29, 2020
In a best-case scenario, Ontario schools will reopen largely as normal in September, with kids in class in school buildings for normal hours. (iStock.com/martinedoucet)

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The school year, as bizarre as it was, has now ended. Two million Ontario children are home for the summer. What kind of summer it will be remains to be seen. An even bigger question is what September will bring. 

The strangeness of all of this remains hard to process. So many of us, parents and schoolchildren alike, have been living through the pandemic day by day, putting one foot ahead of the other, and often losing track of the big picture. That has probably been a healthy thing, in many ways, as the full complexity of this could be overwhelming. But this final week of school drove home how dramatic some of these changes were. Both of my children received their report cards last week by email. That was new. Their end-of-year class parties, with tearful teachers thanking them for a wonderful year, took place electronically, via video conference. Parents went in at appointed times, under teacher escort, to remove their children's personal items from lockers and classroom cubbies.

Perhaps most stark of all, for me, was my wife’s experience when she herself went to clean out her classroom. She had not been able to return to her school since it closed in March. She was allowed to return to clean it out and collect personal belongings and educational materials she will need over the summer to plan lessons. On her desk was a day calendar. The date shown was from early March. Time had stopped. She took a photo of it and texted it to me at once. It sent a chill down my spine. It was an artifact from a different era.

Different, but recent. Depending exactly on when you start counting from, the pandemic began 100-some-odd days ago. Some people use the date that the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic; others cite the sudden shutdown of pro sports leagues in North America as the defining moment. (For my family, it was the day we returned from a trip abroad, just as things were getting interesting, and began "14 days" of self-isolation that stretched on months beyond that.) Life during COVID-19 seems as if it's dragged on forever, but it really hasn't. It's still very new, and we don't know yet what we don't know.

The Ontario government says it has a plan for schools to reopen in the fall — an absolutely necessary precursor to any widespread restart of the economy. Parents can't get back to work until the kids, particularly young ones, are in class. Even those Ontarians who are childless or whose kids are old enough to no longer need constant care won't reach their potential until all their colleagues and business partners with young kids — not to mention clients! — can return to normal productivity. (And this all overlooks, of course, the mental-health and education benefits of school for the children, which, needless to say, are also important.) 

The Ontario plan isn't exactly a plan but more a general notion: schools will be reopened (or not) in geographic zones, so an outbreak in Kingston need not shut down kindergartens in Kitchener. In a best-case scenario, the schools will reopen largely as normal, with kids in class in school buildings for normal hours. 

But there's the other extreme, of course: schools remaining closed and all lessons done by video conference, with parents monitoring. There's also a mid-range option, with schools open on some as-yet-undefined rotating basis — perhaps half the kids in school at a time, for half days, alternating days or alternating weeks (that last one is my vote, if anyone's asking).

It's good that the government is thinking about this. But it's not much of a plan. As a friend of ours remarked, the government's position on a regionally based school reopening with three different options essentially amounts to "literally anything can happen, at any place." I laughed when he said that, because it's true. 

But that's not a criticism of the government. It took only three months or so to completely blow up everything we thought this school year would be about. My own early 2020 output here at TVO.org included two columns on the labour dispute between the teachers' unions and the provincial government — does anyone even remember when we were worried about that? Things moved fast, and they haven’t slowed down.

Every day, our appreciation of COVID-19's threat to the human body evolves. Every day, our understanding of how the virus spreads evolves. But so does the pandemic itself. Ontario's numbers, at time of writing, are the best they've been in months — if we haven't quite crushed the curve, we're certainly moving in the right direction. But this progress in Ontario and across most of Canada is happening against the backdrop of what appears to be a massive surge of COVID-19 in the United States, particularly in the south. Simply by new daily case counts, the U.S. is experiencing its worst days of the pandemic right now, months after the disaster in New York. It's easy to blame this on the particular circumstances in the U.S. But this is also a stark warning to Canadian officials as well. Whatever we want to call what's happening in the U.S. — a revived first wave or the arrival of the second — it could happen here, too.

So, yes, summer is here, the report cards out, and the teachers’ gifts e-transfered to them instead of plunked down on a desk. The summer is an opportunity for us all to recharge and, hopefully, relax. But it's also a pause to plan for what might come next. In our schools and elsewhere, we might come to regret not making good use of every day from now until September. 

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