Ultimately the discussion around reopening schools boils down to two simple questions:
- ‘Is it safe to reopen schools’?
- ‘Are the necessary resources being provided to ensure a safe reopening’?
These are not actually questions that school boards and trustees are entirely at liberty to answer. They are obliged under Ontario law to implement the directions they receive from the Ministry of Education. But they are the questions parents and teachers alike must have answered. At present parents and teachers are doing their best to work out the answers for themselves.
It seems clear, however, from our discussions in recent weeks with teachers and trustees alike, that the answer to question two is ‘No, absolutely not‘. Only a large injection of additional funds can possibly provide each teacher, each classroom and each student with the tools and protections necessary to teach and learn safely. If opening schools is ultimately as much about the economy as education (and it is), the government owes it to teachers and parents to make the investment required.
But there are worrying hints that education minister Stephen Lecce has been unwilling to listen to the advice of more than a handful of insiders, and has largely excluded boards, trustees, teachers and teachers’ unions from discussions of the practicalities of reopening. That’s perhaps unsurprising given the provincial government’s hostility towards the teaching profession, but if the Ford government’s kinder, gentler image were anything more than a facade, Stephen Lecce would have asked a vastly wider selection of experts to play a role in working out how to reopen schools, and the money would be on the way to pay to do it right.
As it is, the flawed provincial planning pretends that only a ‘best case’ scenario exists – where Covid numbers remain relatively static at the current levels – and makes no mention of what will be done should a ‘second wave’ arrive, or major outbreaks appear at Ontario schools. They are forcing boards into an impossible positions, and making teachers work on the frontline of the pandemic without the protections that we rightly don’t expect supermarket checkout staff to tolerate. Teachers don’t even know whether if they have to self isolate it will come out of their sick days.
The only way the current ‘plan’ – in fact a mish-mash of haphazard announcements made over a period of months – can work is if by some miracle there is no Covid second wave in Ontario. Yet everything that appears to be established about the science of Covid-19, in the absence of a vaccine, is that as social contact increases, so will the spread of the disease.
Yet we have also seen that, given the right support, equipment and political will, supermarkets and foodstores can operate safely, hospitals can control and eradicate the disease from their own hallways, and medical staff can protect themselves and their patients from the risk of infection.
To place our children and teachers into a situation which knowingly lacks the vast majority of the protections we expect and demand in every other location that people gather is playing Russian roulette with the lives of children, teachers and the wider population of relatives who will not be able to protect themselves easily from any failure to control Covid spread through schools.
Late of Tuesday, Stephen Lecce announced an optional staggered opening of schools during September to allow more time for preparedness. It may be a small step towards recognising what appears to be quite obvious – schools will not be ready to open safely on September 8th. The province should consider further delays, combined with an investment of funds reflective of the magnitude of the challenge Ontario’s schools face.