Could the collision course of school reopening and pandemic second wave have been avoided

By Liz Stuart, President of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association

The Ford government had six months to prepare for the reopening of schools and just as much time in the lead-up to the second wave of COVID-19. While families across Ontario bought time for infectious disease and public health experts to learn about the virus, and for government officials to heed their advice, teachers urged that the moment schools closed in March was the time to begin consultation and preparation for their safest possible reopening.

As an Association representing frontline teachers in publicly funded Catholic schools across the province, we tried and tried again to work collaboratively with the Ford government, and to share our knowledge about the realities of day-to-day-school operations. We also offered creative, cost-effective solutions, for instance to reduce class sizes and to limit the movement of itinerant and occasional teachers. Unfortunately, as has been the case since the Ford government took office, our attempts to engage the government in constructive dialogue about how the publicly funded education system works and what our schools and students need were rebuffed. Meetings would eventually take place, but the consultation was never meaningful – in many cases, it was clear that the decisions had already been made. 

Why a government would not genuinely consult with the voices of all key education stakeholders during an unprecedented pandemic remains beyond comprehension. It was never going to be perfect. But the Ford government’s unwillingness to move beyond politics is part of the same style of rash decision-making that Ontarians witnessed before the pandemic.

This is a government with a track record of saying a lot more than it is actually doing, and a history of implementing half-measures and hoping for the best. Sadly, this is the same approach the government has taken with the reopening of schools across the province. The funding that has been provided, for instance, is about a third of what a comprehensive plan has been estimated to cost, and much of this comes from the federal government and school board reserves, although the Ford government is quick to take credit.

The situation playing out in schools is part of the government’s general unpreparedness for a second wave, and it is in communities like Ottawa where the government’s lack of planning, last-minute announcements, and failure to provide province-wide protocols or sufficient funding are most apparent.

In its stubborn refusal to reduce elementary class sizes, the government may have been hoping that parents would opt for virtual rather than in-person learning from the get go. But it is now, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, that more parents are shifting their children from in-person to virtual learning, causing disruptions in in-class organization and teaching assignments.

We are also facing a situation where so many school-aged children have been sent for COVID-19 screening that our testing centres are overwhelmed and now operating on an appointment-only basis – a situation that has doctors and infectious disease experts warning that case counts are set to become artificially low because of this shift in testing. Meanwhile, many health experts advised the province for months to boost COVID testing capacity, as we prepared for a simultaneous reopening of schools and a second wave of the pandemic.

We appreciate the complexities of governing during a pandemic. But surely it is now, more that ever, that we need to be able to depend on our government and hold them account-able. Unless the Ford government changes its ways, they will continue to create unnecessary chaos and confusion. Can a leopard change its spots? Not that we have witnessed so far. As we head toward the next provincial election, we cannot lose sight of the government’s inadequate leadership, especially when it comes to children.