Are Ontarians becoming complacent living life in crisis mode?

I know this is going to sound very strange, but I ask readers to bear with me a moment.

No one wants to have problems in life. Most everyone would agree that problems are a total negative. But I beg to differ, at least to some degree. I can see a limited upside because problems challenge us to use our skills, knowledge and creativity to find solutions. They can give us purpose and motivate us to communicate, collaborate and cooperate. And when you think about it, the role of government is to resolve society’s issues. Even when we face a steady flow of problems, we can still live healthy, happy, productive lives.

Crises, however, are an entirely different matter. Crises in life are considered more severe and require urgent attention and resolution to avoid increasing levels of loss or damage. The damage may be irreparable or even deadly if a crisis is prolonged or severe enough.

It is essential to clarify the difference between problems and crises because it seems that since the late ‘90s/2000s and throughout the Ford government years, Ontarians have been facing several crises simultaneously for too long. The pandemic we experienced in the last few years qualified as a crisis, as it had an incredibly detrimental effect on our health, welfare and economy. We seem to have finally wrangled that crisis down to problem levels. However, we are still experiencing horrific effects from public healthcare and education crises.

The most pressing need in education is to address the dire shortage of education workers. This includes teachers, teaching assistants, and early childhood education workers. Worse is the fact that this shortage was well known to be on the horizon even back in 2018 when Premier Ford took office.

As a result of the oversupply of teachers, the government chose to reduce the enrollment spaces in teachers’ colleges. An August 2018 CBC news article reported, “In 2015, the Ontario government cut enrolment at teachers colleges by more than half, with the number of graduates dropping from 12,399 in 2015 to 5,480 by 2018.” The Liberal government of the time chose to extend the education degree qualification from a single to a two-year program. In part, this had the desired effect of reducing the oversupply for at least a year.

But even then, teachers’ college administrators warned the Province that the writing was on the wall. The same 2018 CBC article said, “Just three years after the Ontario government cut teachers college enrolment in half, the Province may be heading toward a teacher shortage. ‘We’re seeing a reduction in oversupply, and that’s going to continue.” warned Richard Barwell, the Dean of education at the University of Ottawa.’”  The Ontario College of Teachers also chimed in, saying that Ontario school boards would need to embark on “vigorous recruitment” strategies to avoid upcoming shortages.

EAs were not paid a wage commensurate with the workload and responsibility. The pay was so low that many workers had to have two or three jobs to make ends meet. Who is going to work for just peanuts on a challenging job that requires patience and training? And don’t forget, they are not paid when school is out. As a result, there was a mass exodus and eventual shortage in the profession. The increased staff workload led to reduced staff availability to assist students. As a result, the pupils became increasingly frustrated, and an overall trend toward acting out became more than evident. Some frustrated students became increasingly uncooperative and lashed out with physical violence, sometimes hitting, kicking, and biting staff or other children. Of course, this lowered the academic achievement of all students in the room.

The crisis of education workers of all stripes is crippling our education system, both public and separate equally, as well as early childhood care systems. Recently, I had the privilege of meeting with Hillary Howe, principal of George O’Neill Public School, Superior Greenstone District School Board and Greg Arkwright, principal of Fenelon Township Public School, Trillium Lakelands District School Board, representing the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC). They shared an OPC report that provided shocking statistics they see in their own schools, which included the following:

  • 46% of schools staff shortages 5 days per week.
  • 70% have up to 20% of their staff positions unfilled every day, because a replacement is not available
  • 60% of the time, unqualified adults must fill staff vacancies.
  • Most staff shortages are Educational Assistants (54%) and teachers (35%).

The report also noted the following negative repercussions due to the above shortages:

  • An increase in behavioural issues, violence, fights, bullying and thefts due to fewer adults in the school, all leading to schools that are less safe
  • A negative impact on learning due to inconsistency of teachers who are away/ill and cancelled/combined classes, resulting in less teaching time per student
  • Less time for students with special needs to spend with their Educational Assistants (EAs), who are often re-assigned to classrooms to cover for absent teachers
  • A disproportionately negative impact on some of our most marginalized, at-risk students as specialized programs are cancelled or cut back
  • An increase in the number of students and the number of times that students with special needs are not able to attend school due to a lack of EAs
  • An increase in mental health issues, stress, burnout and illness for staff who are trying to fill gaps without the human or financial resources to do so adequately
  • Principals and vice-principals must cover classes and supervision, removing them from their primary school responsibilities and legislative duties.

My office commonly receives calls and letters from parents complaining that their child’s school is not meeting their child’s needs. Our children are being collectively victimized. However, it is important to stress that it is not the fault of school board administration, school officials, or staff. They are as frustrated as the parents and kids themselves. Instead, the root of this growing crisis lies at the feet of the Ford government. But Premier Ford and Education Minister Stephen Leece are safely out of the immediate sight and line of fire in Queen’s Park from frustrated parents.

It is time for the Ford government to step into the ring and battle Ontario’s education crises down to become manageable problems. It is not healthy or reasonable for our Ontarians, especially our children, to continue this way.

An excellent beginning would be to start with the OPC report and recommendations. Let’s face it: next to the teachers, principals are on the front lines. They are best positioned to see and hear from parents, staff, and students to understand the issues. And they know what needs to be done to address those issues. From there it is the job of government to listen, learn and develop effective strategies to encourage more people to follow career paths that can be an enriching and honourable career. What could be better than to know you made a difference in children’s lives? If Ontario is going to be a contender in the global economy, we need to make effective investments now so we can reap the benefits in the future.

We all know that problems are just part of life. We all handle problems every day and live happy, productive lives. Crises happen, too, but most often, we act to curb them as quickly as possible. It is not healthy or safe to live in constant crisis. It seems, however, that Premier Ford thinks that it is okay to feed Ontarians a steady stream of multiple crises is perfectly acceptable. The education crisis started out as a problem until his Conservatives came to power.

To force Ontarians to endure such prolonged conditions is not what a compassionate, responsible leader does.

As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at [email protected] or by phone Toll-free at 1-800-831-1899.

Michael Mantha