Premier Doug Ford has done a relatively good job of listening to, and communicating, the medical advice he’s received from public-health officials since the pandemic started in Ontario — certainly a better one than skeptics (including myself) would have anticipated beforehand. But there was always the danger that deference to expertise would eventually slide into an abdication of responsibility, and, given certain remarks from the premier on Monday, Ontario may have gotten to that point.
“Well, first of all, it's not our plan,” Ford said to reporters, referring to the government’s return-to-school plan. “We went with some of the brightest minds in the world, not even Canada, not even Ontario — the SickKids medical team that's advising us, along with CHEO and UHN and our health team, they've come up with a plan.”
In case there was any doubt as to whom the premier wants to have wear the responsibility for this, he later said, “I think SickKids have come up with an incredible plan” when asked again about the anxieties parents and educators are feeling about returning to school in September with full-time classes up to Grade 8.
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There are two problems with Ford’s statements. For starters, Ontario’s 76 boards of education do not, in fact, take their marching orders from the Hospital for Sick Children, even if it is just a stone’s throw from Queen’s Park. It is important to be clear about this: absent the government’s endorsement, the SickKids plan isn’t even a plan — it’s just a stack of paper. The recommendations from SickKids have significance only because Stephen Lecce has used that advice to give direction to Ontario’s school boards, and Lecce has his current position (minister of education) because Doug Ford named him to it. This is Policymaking 101 in cabinet governments, but sometimes it’s helpful to have a refresher.
Another problem with Ford’s claim that they’re just following the advice of experts is that, on the key issue that has people worried, the government isn’t: the SickKids report can be found here, and people who scroll down to page 10 will find the following: “Smaller class sizes should be a priority strategy as it will aid in physical distancing and reduce potential spread from any index case. Several jurisdictions have reopened schools with maximum class sizes ranging from 10-15. However, there is limited evidence on which to base a pre-specified class size.”
It's a careful document, the product of substantial debate among people with technical expertise of a kind that Ford, Lecce, and most people reading it don’t have. But the government can’t get around the fact that it says what it says: smaller class sizes would help contain the spread of COVID-19 when schools reopen.
So, instead of trying to explain why they’re not following the clear advice set out in the plan, the Tories are pinning their response on something else the plan says: that keeping kids one metre from one another, even in classes of a normal size, will do a lot of work to keep children safe, especially if they wear masks (which will be mandatory for Grade 4 and up, and recommended for kids younger than that).
The government may yet be proven right, despite everything: Ontario’s number of new COVID-19 cases has been below 100 for three days running so far this week, and it’s not impossible to imagine that the low baseline level of cases could make this school plan work. But even jurisdictions that have had more success containing the pandemic than Ontario has are seeing resurgences as they reopen their economies, and there’s no obvious reason to think this province will be any different.
Smaller class sizes would undoubtedly have been costly and difficult to implement. Could the government find the kind of space that would work for teachers while also providing a safe learning environment for students? Could the government even find enough spare teachers to run those classrooms? The government would face real resource constraints here even if Ford and his cabinet were willing to say damn the deficit and lay out the substantial sums required. Indeed, the fact that British Columbia (led by NDP premier John Horgan) is reopening schools with a plan that’s at least as parsimonious as Ontario’s should give us pause before we blame ideological or partisan factors, such as the Tory instinct for shrinking government.
We can both acknowledge that the government had hard choices to make and insist that the responsibility lies with the government that made those choices, rather than with the people who gave them advice — especially given the fact that the government was obviously selective about which advice it followed.