Michael Mantha, NDP MPP for Algoma-Manitoulin says the ticking of the back-to-school clock is getting louder as the reopening of Ontario schools gets closer. “Judging by the number of calls, letters and emails that my office is receiving, this is clearly a major stressor for families, teachers, support staff and school bus drivers”, said Mantha. “More and more people every day are telling me that they have absolutely no faith in Doug Ford’s back-to-school plans which includes crowding students into classrooms and school busses.
For months now, public health officials have told Ontarians that social distancing is key to prevent transmission of COVID-19. “Parents are clearly uncomfortable sending their children back into the same crammed classes, most of which have the same ventilation system as they did last March”, said Mantha. “We can’t just pretend that the danger is over now. We need more teachers in our schools and we must open up more classrooms with few students per class. We must invest in updating our antiquated heating and ventilation systems to meet modern standards.
Bussing, too, is a major concern. Mantha says he has heard from several bus drivers who have chosen not to return to the job due to fear for their health and safety. He’s also heard from bus line operators who say they are desperate for qualified drivers as a result. “How can bus drivers possibly concentrate on traffic and road conditions while at the same time teaching and monitoring 70 kids or more who are learning the new behaviours that must be practiced?” Mantha pointed out that extra time for taking attendance and daily sanitizing of all bus surface areas. All of this means longer work hours and higher costs for bus line operators.
In recent days Doug Ford has pointed his finger blaming teachers for the problems, telling them to stop whining and that it is their turn to step up like everyone else including healthcare workers. But how many people are being forced to work in extremely crowded conditions, sharing a single room with 30 or more others, all day long, day after day? Banks, stores, restaurants, offices and other businesses limit the number of people allowed in and enforce a full 2 metre social distancing. The same conditions will not come even close in the average classroom.
About Algoma-Manitoulin and other Northern regions, Mantha pointed out, “Here in Northern Ontario, many of our schools are older and don’t have up-to-date ventilation. Those that were constructed in more recent decades were designed with a primary focus on energy efficiency – having fewer opening windows and smaller square footage.” He also pointed out that it is not at all unusual for children to have an hour long ride each way on the school bus in which they are sitting in very close proximity to their schoolmates. “All of these factors combined are a recipe for disaster for Northern students, teachers, support staff, school bus drivers and their own families they go home to each night.”
New Democrats have proposed time and again positive steps that can be taken to keep everyone healthy and safe in the classroom. Even now it is not too late. Capping class sizes so every child has the support and supervision they need, in a physically-distanced classroom is the key to a successful, healthy full 2020-2021 school year.