They say the olfactory senses can bring about some of the strongest emotions and memories in people. Like when you walk into a room and a particular scent such as baking cookies or a certain potpourri brings back powerful memories of your grandma. For me this week, a simple calendar evoked strong memories. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I noted the date. An old familiar feeling back from my childhood suddenly came over me. At this time of year each summer the sudden realization that the day after Labour Day is just around the corner would cause a kind of a panic in me to cram as much summer fun as possible into the remaining days. This isn’t to say I didn’t like school, but rather that I just liked my summer freedom more. My summers are, and always have, felt far too short.
Now, in my role as MPP, I’m experiencing similar feelings but with a totally different perspective and sense of urgency, brought about by the pandemic. So many people say they are distressed about the safety of children and teachers going back to school this fall. Unfortunately this stress in not only felt by parents but is also being expressed by younger children and secondary school youth. Parents, students, teachers, support staff and even school bus drivers are not convinced that Doug Ford’s plan to send kids back into classroom and onto busses without any true possibility of social distancing is wise or even remotely safe in some cases. To be sure, the people of Ontario have made these concerns abundantly clear for weeks now through petitions, letters and protests. You know it has to be a genuine concern when teachers, support staff and bus drivers are seriously contemplating resigning from their jobs because of fear for their own health and safety in the workplace. Even parents are considering quitting their jobs and swallowing the disadvantages of online learning so they can keep their children out of crowded classes.
Ford and Education Minister Lecce have been pounding the podium declaring there is nothing more important than protecting our children and they will do whatever it takes to keep them safe and healthy. But in truth it seems they mean they will do anything – except provide the funding needed.
Parents and teachers have said all along that the only safe way for students to go back to school is to reduce class sizes by opening closed rooms or buildings and repurposing other appropriate spaces into classrooms. Public health authorities have now confirmed the worries of students, parents, teachers and education workers about Doug Ford’s risky, crowded back-to-school scheme. They have made it have clear that giving kids the room to physically distance in the classroom is the best defense against outbreaks hurting our little ones, and spreading into the community. More teachers are needed to make this happen.
Ford and Lecce outright refuse to reconsider their plans and insist on sending kids back into classes that were already jam-packed before the pandemic. At best they feign such consideration, using slight-of-hand tactics to make people think they are giving in to demands.
There are no real plans to increase funding to boards to hire more teachers despite the sales job by Lecce. After weeks of being hammered by worried parents and teachers, Lecce did announce the government would provide money to increase staff. But the final total amount was not even a joke. When you divide the total increase by the number of schools in the province, it works out to a pathetic $16,000 per school. That is not even enough to hire one teacher for the year. So much for breaking classes up into smaller, safer groups.
Once it was clear the public had caught onto Lecce’s ploy, the Government tried further slight-of-hand by announcing the Ministry of Education would allow special one time access to school board reserves to help cover the costs of hiring more teachers. First of all, this is assuming that every board has “reserve” funding. Reserve funding is money that some boards had put aside from many years back for helping to cover unexpected or “rainy-day” expenses and needs. For example, when boards don’t have sufficient funding to cover special needs expenses, they can turn to such funds. But once the account is gone, it will never be replenished. The thing is, however, not every board has reserve funding. So the truth of the matter is that the Province is not actually handing over $500 million. They are just allowing those boards that do have their own money to spend some.
Health officials also highly recommend ensuring there is adequate ventilation to keep fresh air circulating in the classes. But we all know that many schools do not have such circulation systems. Many thousands of class rooms have windows that don’t open at all or perhaps a couple small ones that open just a crack. Once again, Doug Ford claims to have come to the rescue by providing up to $50 million for repair, improvement or installation of ventilation systems. So, how much will this mean per school given that there are over 4500 schools in the province? A single ventilation system could cost well over $100 thousand. Providing $50 million is like throwing a glass of water on a burning barn.
The good news, however, that it is not too late.
New Democrats have been proposing capping class sizes for all students, and hustling to get temporary classroom spaces, teachers and education workers lined up for all those classes. Ensuring every classroom has proper ventilation would be among the highest priorities. We would undertake reparations that governments have ignored for years – using money that would have been available through the cap-and-trade system that Doug Ford gave up when first elected. That money had been earmarked for school repairs. Under an NDP plan, Ontario schools would be welcoming all students back to school five days a week – but in smaller, safer classes.
Ontario, like every province in Canada, is facing hard days ahead for economic recovery. Expenditures on our children’s education and making our schools safe is clearly an outstanding investment in the health and safety of children. It’s an investment in parents getting back to work. And it’s an investment in getting our economy moving again.
As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues, or any other provincial matters.
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