A few days ago, I flipped the calendar in my kitchen from August to September and stood there for several seconds, feeling how deeply unsettling the moment was. It wasn’t just that I still use a paper calendar in the year 2020—reserve your judgement, please—it was knowing that September is officially here and somehow, Ontario still doesn’t have a safe school reopening plan in place.
My children were supposed to be back in class on September 8th, but the start of the school year has been pushed back by a week because nothing is ready—not the classrooms, the health and safety protocols, the buildings, PPE, and in many cases, not even parents or educators. It’s a mess. Information is changing by the hour, and though we’re just days away from most Ontario schools reopening, students still haven’t been assigned to cohorts and many teachers don’t even know their assignments for the year.
It’s not the schools’ fault, in my opinion—all of the teachers and administrators I know are working incredibly hard right now, picking up the pieces of a mess they didn’t create. Instead, the problem stems from a complete lack of support from the provincial government, who promised to do “whatever it takes” and then promptly plugged their ears, humming away like rebellious toddlers. (Don’t worry; they found time to reopen bars.)
We are SIX MONTHS into this pandemic. I don’t expect perfection from anyone, but I would hope that those in leadership and decision-making roles would have their shit together by now. Instead, Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce have ignored expert recommendations, silenced parents and continued to demonize educators. Instead of getting to work, they’ve played a game of ignorance and distraction. There has been plenty of time to address the needs of students and educators while planning a safe return to the classroom, and it simply hasn’t happened—I’m raging mad. Sure, there are plenty of “nice to haves” on the table, like plexiglass desk dividers and shade tents for outdoor spaces, but at the end of the day, we know what’s absolutely necessary: smaller class sizes that allow for social distancing, and proper ventilation, which includes wildly luxurious things like classroom windows that actually open.
Our kids aren’t getting what they need, and it puts us all at risk.
Even the health and safety measures we are (allegedly) getting seem to be more promissory than anything else. My kids’ school still doesn’t have PPE on site, for example. It’s also a 100 year old building with windows that are more decorative than functional. Most classrooms don’t have sinks and not every floor has a washroom, so kids sharing common spaces is unavoidable. Across the province, public schools are plagued with inadequate HVAC systems— something the premier has suggested they replace at the last minute using reserve budgets that weren’t unlocked until mid-August. Because, you know, it’s easy to fix hundreds of massive ventilation systems on minimal funds in a matter of weeks. (Also, someone may want to tell Ford about how many Ontario schools contain asbestos, and how that particular issue impacts a renovation timeline.)
I’m tired of Lecce’s tone deaf grandstanding and Ford’s lies. What we need is truth and action. It doesn’t matter what’s said in a press conference— not only has the government failed to support smaller class sizes, they’ve actually made many elementary school classes bigger. That’s right: if a school has two classes of 25 students and 10 students from each class have opted for online learning, that doesn’t result in two reasonably sized classes of 15— it could mean one class of 30 kids. Yes, those ideal classes will be collapsed into one large group and one of the teachers, now considered surplus, would be assigned to online learning or another role.
What’s that sound you hear? Just me and thousands of other parents, collectively screaming into the void.
This situation is ridiculous, and it goes against every credible medical recommendation we’ve seen. A much-publicized Sick Kids report stated, “Our recommendation from an overall health perspective is that children and youth return to a daily school model with risk mitigation strategies in place.” These mitigation strategies were clearly outlined within the report and included smaller class sizes, symptom screening, wearing face masks, student cohorting, handwashing, ventilation and social distancing. It recognizes that while two metres is the standard recommendation for social distancing, a minimum of one metre may be more achievable in elementary schools. In reality, when you’re looking at overcrowded classrooms, you’d be lucky to get a solid half metre between desks.
Kelly Iggers is a parent and a teacher-librarian with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) who has been advocating for a safe September. “I was shattered by the provincial government’s plan to return with no reduction in class sizes,” Iggers explains, noting that she’d been “naively optimistic” before details were announced. (In fairness, Lecce himself stated on camera that classes would likely resume in an adaptive model with “no more than 15 students” in a room.) Iggers started a petition asking Ford and Lecce to reduce class sizes in order to allow for proper social distancing measures. At present, the petition has over 250,000 signatures and has led to the formation of OntarioSafe, a volunteer-led group advocating for safe and equitable conditions in public schools.
Not only is Iggers seriously concerned about a lack of adequate health protections for children, educators and their families, she recognizes the impact that safe school reopenings could have on our economy. “The current situation has forced many parents—particularly women—to give up or reduce their employment,” she says. “It’s also crucial to point out that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities in Ontario. A safe school reopening plan is needed for all Ontarians, but it is particularly needed so that we do not deepen these inequities that we are already seeing.”
Instead of focusing efforts on a safe, successful reopening of the Ontario public school system, government officials are passing the buck while Ford asserts that he “won’t hesitate” to initiate a second shutdown if COVID-19 outbreaks hit schools (a notion that strikes fear into the heart of every economically vulnerable working parent). Instead of prevention, we’re getting PR from Lecce and a misguided call for prayers from Ford. It’s not enough, and it’s not okay.
September is here and instead of feeling excited, I’m angry. Parents around the province are making noise and if it continues, I hope we’ll eventually be heard. Ontario doesn’t need another sudden reaction to crisis—we need evidence-based, proactive measures now. Smaller is safer, and it can be done. Our kids and communities deserve it.