Tuesday marks six weeks until the first day of school for most children and youth in Ontario. Simply put, it is unacceptable that parents still do not have a plan that ensures their kids will have an uninterrupted and in-person school year.
Parents have gone for months at their wits’ end trying to work and provide an education for their kids during often challenging virtual learning. Last week, the Science Table – Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory panel – could not have been clearer when they said the lack of access to in-person learning and extracurriculars was taking a severe toll on our kids’ mental and emotional well-being. We know it’s bad for kids mental health and academic outcomes to be out of school, and we know it’s placed an enormous burden on parents —then why on earth won’t Doug Ford’s Minister of Education give us a proper plan to get kids safely back in school in September?
Some erroneously chalk this up to education advocates being stand-offish, but their frustration is merited, as this isn’t the first time they’ve seen opportunities squandered leading to disaster. In November and December of 2020, before the depths of the second wave, education advocates and parents were begging Stephen Lecce, the Minister of Education, to take action and make schools safe while kids were home for the holiday break. The Ford government’s response? They shut down parliament for the holidays and ignored the issue. Classes were not made smaller, ventilation systems were not installed, extra custodians were not hired and schools went on to be a major factor in the community spread that ravaged our province during the second wave. We can’t go back in time and fix those mistakes, but this Government can learn from them. An opportunity to avoid this was squandered once before – that opportunity presents itself again.
We have six weeks before kids go back to school and the province is unprepared. Less than 40 percent of kids aged 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, and our Premier and his Minister of Education are simply hoping more kids will get the shot on their own. That’s their strategy.
So, what does a proper plan for education look like? How do we tell parents we have a plan that we can confidently say will get kids in schools and keep them there? First, we begin with preventative measures that should’ve been in place eight months ago. Classroom sizes must be capped to allow for distancing and reduce transmission. At the same time, students need access to one-on-one mental health and academic support. Minimum ventilation standards must be drafted and then met. Those standards exist in other provincial buildings and they must exist in spaces where teachers work and kids learn. Paid sick days must be allowed for parents to be able to keep their kids at home if they have symptoms. Lastly, the province needs to reconvene the experts and ask them to draft a specific vaccination strategy for students with full input from parents and educators. Simply hoping families will fix this themselves is not leadership, and it’s not proactive.
Fixing this problem can be done without having to raise new capital. As Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office (FAO) released last week, the Ford government failed to spend $10.3 billion dollars they had allocated during the pandemic, including almost $1 billion that was earmarked for long-term care and public health measures during the height of the second and third waves. Ford promised to spare no expense to tackle COVID-19, and yet in reality he was cutting every corner he could. The province has the money to make schools safe and then some. This money could be allocated to ensuring that our school year is not cancelled as schools begin to fill with children unable to get the vaccine but still able to spread the virus in our communities. As the Science Table and just about every parent I’ve spoken to has clearly said, this last year has left kids struggling with their mental and emotional health. Students have struggled with credit accumulation, especially those with unique learning needs. Some kids, especially those without proper internet access, are on the cusp of losing some of the most valuable years of their education. Our children’s future depends on getting this right, and ensuring they don’t fall behind.
These are children, and their futures are in our hands. Negligence by our Minister of Education meant that an opportunity was missed once to stamp out outbreaks in schools and keep communities safe – I am not sure what you call it if that opportunity is missed a second time. Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.