Will going back to school mean going back on strike?

OPINION: My gut tells me that most parents will send their kids to school in the fall. But teachers may decide that going back to class is too risky a proposition
By Matt Gurney - Published on Aug 06, 2020
Teachers march outside Market Lane Junior and Senior Public School, in Toronto, on January 20. (CP Photo))

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From time to time, I have noted here how strange it is to go back and read my columns for TVO.org from the beginning of the year. Before the pandemic hit, one of the main concerns in Ontario politics was the possibility of a strike by teachers’ unions. Indeed, some job action, including rotating strikes, had already begun. It did genuinely seem set to be one of the bigger stories of 2020. Suffice it to say, events intervened, and when all the various unions eventually signed agreements with the government, that was little noticed by a population dealing with a public-health emergency. 

But now, I am starting to wonder whether we may begin to see some further disputes between those unions and the government. The Tories’ back-to-school plan is being roundly criticized. With a month to go before classes resume, one has to wonder what is still in store for us.

I won’t recap here at any length what the plan, such as it is, contains. People for Education, an Ontario-based group that studies and reports on educational issues, published a summary several days ago of what the Ontario back-to-school plan does and does not include. The incredibly short version is that some new funding has been provided, and some of it may well prove useful. But there are elements that teachers, and many parents I have spoken to, expected to see in the plan that are absent from the current version. Namely, class sizes have not been significantly reduced at the elementary-school level.

As noted in a column published here last week, I genuinely am sympathetic to the bind the government finds itself in. This is a problem with no easy, good answer. No one is going to be happy with whatever plan is eventually implemented. We are stuck between the rock of needing the schools open for economic reasons and a hard place of knowing that COVID-19 can and does transmit in school environments. If there is a perfect way to square this circle, no one has found it yet.

The challenge for the government, therefore, is not to achieve perfection. It’s to be seen doing the very best possible job under the circumstances. Some of what is included in the plan is smart. But there are some obvious things that the government could be doing more of, that they are not. And, as noted, the top item on that list is reducing class sizes.

Some progress on this front was absolutely expected. Several weeks ago, for a series of articles here, I spoke with a variety of people who have their own insights into getting the schools open again come September. It was accepted as a given, by me as much as by the people I was interviewing, that a big part of the plan for elementary schools was going to be reducing class sizes. Physical distancing in classroom environments is impossible otherwise. A teacher I interviewed described the challenge of maintaining physical distance — even in her unusually large class and even assuming only 15 students per room. It would be possible until the first kid needed to get up to go to the bathroom, they noted, and as long as the teacher remained firmly planted behind their desk at all times, never needing to retrieve supplies from the back of the room or go to a student’s desk to provide some assistance.

But there is nothing in the plan that accomplishes the goal of reducing class sizes in elementary schools. (Class sizes are being reduced in high schools, for the record.) The government has said that class sizes are already smaller in elementary schools, and the premier said on Thursday that he wants classes as small as possible. Okay, fair enough. This is clearly an issue that is on his mind.

But I can’t help but wonder how the debate will sound and feel in this province, say, three weeks from now, when getting back into class is a much more immediate prospect. My gut tells me that most parents will send their kids back to school, whatever their personal misgivings may be, because, frankly, they need them to go back to school in order to return to work. But the parents are not the only ones who get to make decisions here. In my series last month, I raised, more than once, the possibility of absenteeism: teachers deciding that a return to work was simply a riskier proposition than they were prepared to accept.

As we move into August, and the return to school becomes ever closer, I have to wonder whether, perhaps, the issue will be less about individual absenteeism by teachers so much as an organized refusal to return to work. It will be hard to open elementary schools if the teachers’ unions declare them unsafe working environments and refuse to report. 

This is not a prediction; if 2020 has taught us anything, it has been the futility of making those. But it is certainly a possibility. And I would be shocked if conversations about exactly this hadn’t already begun among teachers and their union representatives. After all, there’s still a month to go.

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