News from the Park – Back to School

I have an uncle that I love dearly who has always been extremely supportive, especially since I joined the world of politics.  He stays abreast of what’s happening in Algoma-Manitoulin in the news and comments on this weekly column from time to time.  He’s a wonderful fellow with a great sense of humour but he does have some pet peeves.  One of them has to do with people/businesses jumping the gun and getting too far ahead of themselves.  One big one he’s had for years was a certain national retail catalogue that used to deliver its catalogues earlier and earlier.  You could hear his roars about getting the Christmas Wish Book in July or similar out of season early publications.  The same thing would happen if a local store started putting up Christmas decorations before Trick or Treaters have even knocked on his door.

Well at the risk of pushing my uncle’s buttons, this week I am raising the issue of ‘Back to School’ while it’s still July.  In truth, by the time he finishes reading this week’s column, I think he will understand why I’m raising this issue at this time.

During this pandemic, parents have had their hands full juggling parenting and making sure school-age kids keep up with remote learning, all the while managing their own workloads and responsibilities.  Ontarians can be proud of how we’ve stepped up to the plate as a people when called upon.  They deserve a provincial government that will step up with a plan for September and the funding schools need to protect children and their teachers from COVID-19.

Like a cat, time has a way of creeping up on us.  To date, Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce have failed to provide a true plan or the funding necessary to ensure children and youth can return to schools and child care centres in a safe and supportive way.  It’s simply not good enough for a government to dump this monumental challenge on school boards without providing any additional resources or funding from the province.  We’ve heard a lot of talk from the Ford government about re-opening schools.  But that is all it is – just talk.  A solid plan was needed weeks ago.  And now, what parents need is real action and proper funding to get our children safely back in school.

Medical authorities, mental health professionals, educators and child development experts have all told us that children and youth NEED to be in school full time – five days each week.  This is a fact, not just best ‘practice advice.’  It is necessary for their own physical and mental wellbeing and development.

The NDP promised at the beginning of the last session to not only oppose but to propose, and we have stood by that commitment.  We can’t wait any longer.  That’s why, rather than just criticizing, we tabled a motion in the Legislature asking the Ford Government to implement an emergency action plan to help get children and youth safely back to class five days a week in the fall.  Our plan includes:

  • Putting enough teachers, education workers and alternative classrooms in place for all students to return to school five days a week, in small, safe classrooms;
  • Paid sick leave and parental leave in any modified return;
  • Immediate funding to stabilize the child care sector to prevent fee increases and layoffs;
  • Increased funding for teacher hiring, bussing, school repairs and cleaning;
  • Real collaboration with frontline education workers, students, parents and school boards through a COVID-19 recovery school advisory group;
  • Addressing the needs of students from Indigenous, black and racialized communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19;

School boards have been told to be ready for any scenario including: online learning only, a hybrid model in which children attend class in person only on alternating days and finally a full resumption of a standard school day.  This sort of planning is like taking a photo with a wide-angle lens.  It may be all encompassing, but in the end, the photo lacks the needed detail on the decided subject.

My office has had so many emails, calls and letters about the need for reliable, affordable high-speed broadband services, like they have across most of the province.  Not everyone in Algoma-Manitoulin had broadband caps removed for billing as in other parts of the province.  The North and many Indigenous communities have been left out.  Here in our own Algoma-Manitoulin, many students cannot access the broadband level of service that they need to continue their studies.

New Democrats have long called for expanded broadband.  And now that we are in a position where we truly NEED it, it’s not there.  This makes it especially difficult for school boards to organize across our vast northern regions.

As I said before, I’ve run the risk of setting off my dear uncle.  But I know he will forgive me and agree that the time has passed for the government to simply rely upon the general, vague instructions that Ford issued at the end of June.  It’s time to implement a solid back to school plan that people can count on.

As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues, or any other provincial matters.

Mike Mantha