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It feels like déjà vu all over again, except this time the province is staring down a more deadly and contagious wave of the coronavirus, courtesy of the Delta variant
As summer turns the corner toward fall, Ontario released its plan for a return to school on Tuesday afternoon. The plan includes a return to school sports and extracurricular activities and no mandate to vaccinate kids.
It feels like déjà vu all over again, except this time the province is staring down a more deadly and contagious wave of the coronavirus, courtesy of the Delta variant.
Doug Ford has been insisting on campaign-style stops he’s been making around the province that schools will be open for in-person learning and that it will be safe. He says he’ll drive students on the bus himself if he has to.
But vaccines will not be mandated under the Ford government’s plan as school boards begin to survey parents on a choice between in-person and virtual learning starting August 5. Other questions remain unanswered, like how school closures will be handled.
Parents, particularly those with younger children under 12 who haven’t been vaccinated against the virus, are once again stuck in the middle. Many will have no choice but to send their kids back to school, whatever that looks like.
The premier seems to be betting on the idea that older kids will be vaccinated to avoid another scenario like we had this spring with lockdowns.
But only 35 per cent of eligible children between the ages of 12 and 17 have been fully vaccinated in the province. And aerosol spread of the Delta variant poses a heightened risk.
With a 28-day period required between doses and a 14-day period for a second dose to build immunity, the window to vaccinate is already closing. It’s still unclear, however, if there will be a plan for kids who aren’t vaccinated to get their shot once school starts, especially in lower-income neighbourhoods in the northwest end of the city where vaccine rates are lagging behind.
What kind of financial help schools boards can expect is also very much up in the air. Boards have been told that managing air quality in schools is their responsibility.
Last summer, the premier and his education minister, Stephen Lecce, promised to hire 500 public health nurses to screen students for the virus and 1,000 custodians to keep schools clean. In all, some $309 million was pledged. That was nowhere near enough to begin with.
But much of it, including the promised screening, contact tracing and upgraded ventilation systems for schools, was never delivered. Kids self-screened using a phone app. That will again be the case for this September. There were no nurses standing at the ready at school entrances taking temperatures. That was despite an additional $2 billion in funding to the provinces from the feds. Fresh questions are being raised now about how much of that money was actually spent.
On the ground, meanwhile, it was left for school boards to figure out the logistics. Many, at least those who could, had to dip into their reserves. And so it is again this year, with the province telling boards to be prepared to shift quickly to an online mode should that be required.
Teachers’ unions have been calling – and continue to call – for smaller class sizes. But that’s been a non-starter with Ford and Lecce who have insisted that mandatory masking and other cleaning and physical distancing protocols would be good enough. They were wrong. Successive waves of the virus would force schools to stay closed after the winter holidays and again in April.
Fast forward to September 2021 and it’s hard to believe it was only a few short weeks ago that Ford was shedding crocodile tears over the “mistakes” he has made during the pandemic – namely, letting an avoidable third wave get out of control. But that was then. This is now.
The lessons learned from that experience, however, don’t seem to have increased the sense of urgency on the part of Ford government on the need to increase funding for public education. On the contrary, Ford cut $800 million from this year’s budget for education.
The Ford government has, in fact, been shortchanging both health care and education since it came to power. The province’s Financial Accountability Office revealed in mid-July that the province spent some $10.3 billion less than promised last year, including withholding more than $1.3 billion for health care and public health.
All of which makes you wonder even more if the lockdowns necessitated by the government’s bungling could have been avoided if the premier had decided to invest the money in the first place.
Nope. Ford’s ongoing war with teachers’ unions and other perceived enemies of the state continues unabated despite the pandemic.
Earlier this summer, for example, the RCMP launched an investigation into Vaughan Working Families, a group behind ads targeting teachers. The group allegedly contravened election spending rules by failing to register as a third-party advertiser with the province. The group’s chair also happens to be developer Michael DeGasperis, whose current business interests include three major developments that are being fast-tracked by ministerial zoning orders (aka MZOs).
Ford and his minister have been playing a shell game when it comes to education – promising money that never materializes while using the pandemic as an excuse to push their e-learning privatization agenda and fight with teachers.
On that front, it’s all systems go. At least one PC MPP has been talking out loud about teachers being replaced with video lessons. It speaks volumes about just how little the Ford government believes in public education, let alone the necessary funding needed to protect kids during a deadly pandemic.
Much has been made of the importance of in-person learning for kids who’ve been taken out of their routine during the pandemic. Hopefully, the Ford government’s plan isn’t setting them up for another lockdown.