Doug Ford government releases back-to-school plan for September

But unions representing education workers say it will take 10 times the infusion of cash Ford is promising to ensure a safe return this fall

The COVID summer is almost over for kids. It’ll be back to school in September. Premier Doug Ford made the announcement Thursday afternoon, using a school in Whitby as the backdrop to release details of his government’s highly-anticipated plan.

There will be five hours a day, five days a week of classroom instruction. It won’t be exactly like pre-COVID times. Ford acknowledged, albeit indirectly, that safety measures being prescribed are not fool-proof. “Our classrooms will be as safe as we can make them,” Ford said.

But, in the end, he said, “When it comes down to it, our children belong in schools.”

It’s a sentiment that’s hard to disagree with. But some polls released ahead of the government’s announcement suggest more parents are concerned than not about sending their kids back to school full time.

Unions representing teachers and staff say it will take 10 times the infusion of cash the Ford government is promising for the measures needed to ensure a safe return in September.

The province is pledging $309 million to hire 500 public health nurses to screen students for the virus. To keep schools clean, more than 1,000 new custodians will be hired. Masks will be mandatory for grades 4 to 12. Secondary school students will be placed in smaller groups to reduce the risk of the virus. Education minister Stephen Lecce said that, if required, the province would “add another layer” to ensure safety.

The government was a little less clear on how it will be able to maintain physical distancing requirements. But Ford said that parents who want to can opt for remote learning for their children, which has been a big part of the Ford government’s education agenda even before the pandemic.

Some say the pandemic has provided the opportunity for Ford to push his e-learning plan through the backdoor. Lecce made clear that teachers who decide not to return to the classroom will be expected to teach online.

Lecce described the strategy laid out by the government to go back in September as “pulling out all the stops.”

But it’s success will rely as much on parents and students as teachers.

Parents will have to monitor their children and not send them to school if they’re sick, and must enforce hand washing and physical distancing protocols. Lecce called it a “social contract.”

Provincial medical officer of health Barbara Yaffe acknowledged that kind of vigilance will pose a challenge.

“There will be a lot of learning as we go. We are hoping that parents take this very seriously. We don’t want to have major issues in schools.”

Ford kept coming back to “the advice of the medical experts” during his press conference. And they’ve been warning the government about the mental health fallout the pandemic is having on children.

Ford cited the Sick Kids’ report released in June and updated this week. It posits that the mental health risks posed by the virus are higher for children than the virus itself.  

We know a lot more now about COVID-19 than we did when Ontario became the first province to close schools back in March. But the decision to go back to school is as much about economics. Lecce alluded to the need to “get parents back to work” – the province will be opening daycare centres as well – as Stage 3 reopening of the economy takes effect.

At times during Thursday’s press conference, it felt like a campaign stop.

Ford has been on a mini-tour of the province in recent days, visiting his MPPs in friendly ridings and spreading the word about the good works his government has been doing during the pandemic. The message has been about “Getting Ontario Back On Track.”

But his back-to-school plan is risking another fight with teachers’ unions.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens issued a statement shortly after the Ford government unveiled its plans. The government is “jeopardizing the safety of all Ontarians” with its “underfunded return to school plan,” the statement says.

OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof had the strongest words. He called the Ford government’s plan “an insult” and “half-baked.”  


Comments (1)

  • George Baumann August 2, 2020 10:07 PM

    The educational planning that the Ontario provincial government has done for September reminds me of that great historical novel, “War and Peace” – a tale that, among other things, reveals the huge disparity between the tidy plans made over battlefield maps in the rear of the action, by generals, strategists, and experts in tactics and munitions, to address the desired outcomes of the battle, with little regard for, or ability to anticipate, the realities and shifting fortunes of the forward action on so many fronts; an aggregate reality that is as dynamic and unpredictable as the behavior of the individual soldiers on the field, all of whom possess different skills, different degrees of bravery and stamina, training and creativity, and who receive various orders and instructions from the middle ranks in their own battalions, based on limited communication of the original battle plans, the situational interpretation of those plans by the middle ranks, and the immediate necessity of confronting the action as it actually exists “on the ground”, person-to-person, minute-by-minute, as the struggle continues, day in and day out. (Sorry for the run-on sentence – not unlike the battle itself.)

    Well, the “generals” have done their job, as they see it: they have provided the “rules of engagement”, and a notion as to the desired outcome, with a promise to provide munitions and materiel in sufficient quantity, according to the optimistic estimates of various budgets, devised by the governing “procurement officers”, who are sworn to keep costs low and hopes high. From here, they have passed all of the responsibility for success to the middle ranks (in this case, the school boards, superintendents and principals), who must direct the “ground troops” according to the rules, and make the necessary tactical adjustments when confronting the enemy, which is an invisible foe with considerable stealth capabilities, including “delayed detonation” and self-replicating properties that defy immediate detection and any form of surefire countermeasure.

    As usual, the “cannon fodder” will be the troops themselves, the teachers and students, who will succeed and fail on various fronts, in varying degrees. This well-known hierarchy will allow the generals the convenience of accepting praise where success is found, and assigning blame to the middle ranks (and the troops, of course) where it is not. In this model, parents and other non-attending civilians are the “non-combatants” who will suffer “collateral damage”, either physically or financially, or both, and will have their lives interrupted, derailed, or destroyed to the degree that local skirmishes with the enemy make an impact on their immediate communities. Bear in mind, too, that all of this ‘warfare’ is expected to take place while the central purpose of schools – the education of students – goes forward as if there were no distractions at all.

    This crude analogy, of course, is just as flawed as the provincial plans themselves, which makes it oddly appropriate as a general description of what September will likely bring. Sadly, there will be no battlefield promotions for members of the lower ranks who contain the enemy successfully, and no peace for anyone, but for the nightly rest between confrontations. It seems inevitable that “battle fatigue” will eventually weaken the resolve of even the strongest troops, and we must hope that a vaccine arrives from the laboratories with all due expedience. This is the “secret weapon” that is in development as we speak, and there will be no armistice day until its successful deployment is complete.

    To those about to enter the field, you have my greatest respect and admiration, and I salute you. To engage in this terrible conflict while simultaneously attempting to conquer a demanding educational curriculum, seems like an impossible double task to me. However it transpires, I implore you to take good care of yourselves and of each other. Do this so that you may “live to fight another day”, and take whatever small pleasures you can from each others’ company, and from even the smallest achievements during so great a fight. Know that we love you, know that in our eyes you can do no wrong, and the generals be damned. When September comes, it is no longer their fight; it is yours.

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