Ontario’s back-to-school plan meets Groundhog Day

It’s beginning to feel like the movie Groundhog Day when it comes to the pandemic from hell that’s invaded our lives. Ditto for Stephen Lecce press conferences.

The education minister held another of his patented pressers on Wednesday to lay out the Ford government’s school reopening plan. A day earlier, Wiarton Willie – an actual groundhog and Ontario’s most famous – predicted an early spring in the annual rite of winter that takes place this time of year. Willie didn’t actually see his shadow. In fact, he was nowhere to be seen given Ontario is in another lockdown. So locals tossed a fur hat in the air instead to call it an early spring.

Lecce didn’t see his shadow either. So it’s all systems go on February 8 for schools in most of the province, and on February 16 for schools in Toronto, York and Peel that have been closed for in-person learning since Christmas break.

There’ll be more money for this, money for that to add to the “layers of protection” for our kids, Lecce intoned. We’ve heard it all before – back in late July as a matter of fact when the Ford government laid out its original back-to-school plan for the fall. Then came the second wave to force another lockdown – or “stay-at-home order” – as the government likes to call it. We’re still trying to get an accounting from the province on the teachers, nurses and custodians that were supposed to be hired under the first plan. But we digress.

Most kids want to go back to school (or at least some semblance of normal). Most parents want their kids to go back, too. Most of us accept that it’s important for everyone’s continued mental health. We get it.

But the coronavirus has a mind of its own.

Yes, the number of new cases is trending downward, but January was the deadliest month yet – 1,658 people died. Now we have new variants of the virus on the loose in Ontario from the UK and South Africa that are anywhere from 60 to 80 per cent more contagious. Early research also tells us that kids are more susceptible to these strains. The reports out of Denmark are unnerving scientists.

The Ford government’s own briefing materials describe the UK variant as “a significant threat to controlling the pandemic”; and that it “could become the dominant strain of the virus in the province by March, posing an increased threat to public health and hospital capacity.”

Not “could” – it’s already on its way.

In a month from now, COVID-19 may have been replaced by B117 as the dominant coronavirus. What that means for the effectiveness of vaccines being rolled out to stop the spread of COVID-19 remains a matter of debate.

But the new case numbers from other jurisdictions are warning us that we are currently in the calm before another storm. We are headed into the teeth of another wave. Jurisdictions that opened their schools before Ontario, like Montreal and in Israel, are already there.

The problem is not so much the risk of outbreaks in schools – the province likes to point out that 80 per cent of schools experienced no outbreaks before the Christmas break. The issue is outbreaks from schools finding their way into the community.

Yet, here we go again playing race with the devil with the virus, trying to stay one step ahead. It’s exhausting – and ultimately a losing proposition.

It would be more prudent at this point to wait out the winter wave and reopen schools after March Break. Epidemiologists suggest we will have to get the so-called “R number” (which measures spread) well below normal rates to manage the surge expected by the variants.

The Ford government seems intent on a return to in-person learning, regardless. That may still change, but the Ford government has already indicated it’s considering cancelling March Break – they say to discourage travel and the spread of the virus.

But it’s hard not to be left with the feeling that Ontarians – a least those living in the GTA – have become cannon fodder in the Ford government’s continuing war with teachers unions when it comes to the coronavirus. Who could forget Ford admonishing teachers to “step up” back in August as they prepared to go back to class? The two sides have been fighting since the Ford government came to power.

It started with increases to class-size and e-learning requirements for high school students. That was followed by an end to free tuition for post-secondary students from low-income families, a ban on cell phones in classrooms and the conflict over a new sex-ed curriculum. There was a lot of dirty work to be done in the manufacturing of a crisis in education.

The feds had to step in back in the fall with funding for other safeguards to allay the safety concerns of parents and teachers. The province is still sitting on some $700 million of that. That’s another story. Under Lecce, the battle of wills continues, but who’s he kidding?


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