Premier Doug Ford is ready to listen to opinions on whether schools should reopen this year. But get back to him by 5pm Friday.
The premier asked a wide range of Ontario professionals for advice about sending students back to school in an open letter addressed to unions, professional associations and public health units on Thursday. The call for advice comes with one month left of school before summer break for more than two millions Ontario students who have been studying at home for at least six weeks.
Many of those stakeholders Ford has appealed to have been increasingly vocal about both the lack of safety measures at schools and the dangers of keeping children home any longer. Ford's decision will affect the living and working conditions of families of more than two million school-aged children and youth in the province and those who work with them.
“We need now to ensure there is broad consensus from our medical, public health, and education experts that returning to school is the right thing to do,” Ford said in the letter noting the “wide range of advice and commentary” already provided.
Those addressed largely agree that whenever possible young people should be in classrooms that have been made as safe as possible, but have differing opinions on whether the government has accomplished that goal and how important that is relative to the damage being done by keeping children at home for extended periods.
Critics immediately jumped on the three-page letter as an abdication of responsibility from a government that has not done enough to improve ventilation, reduce class sizes or otherwise make schools safer for students and staff.
“Is there a missing page where Ford outlines what steps HE’LL take to make schools safe to reopen?,” the Opposition NDP’s education critic Marit Stiles said on Twitter.
Michael Coteau, a Liberal MPP and former minister of community and social services, said Ford can’t demand consensus.
“Leaders always receive conflicting and contradictory advice from different sources,” he wrote on Twitter, the social media platform where much of the advice from these groups (and scores of somewhat anonymous accounts of frustrated teachers and parents) is already delivered.
“If Doug Ford didn't want to make tough decisions, take responsibility and be accountable, he shouldn't be Premier of Ontario,” Coteau said.
While vaccination rates in the province (and the country) are improving after a slow start, newer variants of concern circulating in Ontario pose a distinct threat should schools re-open.
“We are expecting new modelling this week that puts the range of new cases associated with school reopening between 2,000 to 4,000 cases by the end of July,” Ford’s three-page letter said.
It pointed out more recent variants of the original virus have surged elsewhere and are making children sicker, are potentially more deadly and are more resistant to vaccines and also acknowledged that the most vulnerable students in Ontario have been hit hardest.
“We know the mental health, academic and other challenges some students have faced with at-home learning, particularly those from low-income, racialized and high needs neighbourhoods,” the letter said.
Those communities -- much more likely to rely on public transport or otherwise need to get to jobs that can't be done remotely -- have been much harder hit by COVID-19 spread and had a harder time getting vaccinated.
Teachers’ unions were blocked from filing a blanket health-and-safety complaint at the labour relations board just ahead of last September’s back-to-school season. They maintain the government has not invested enough to protect students and staff.
The Ontario Parent Action Network calculates Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce are cutting $481 per student from the next year’s budget, or $14,000 per classroom.
“They simply do not care about the mental health, learning, or safety of kids,” the advocacy group said. “If they did, why cut?”
The Canadian Paediatric Society, the province’s biggest children’s hospitals and other medical and child advocacy groups last week implored Ford, Lecce, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Dr. David Williams, the chief medical officer of health, to reopen schools immediately.
“The benefits of a few weeks cannot be overstated,” they wrote. “Our front-line educators are in a position to recognise signs of abuse and to support children suffering with mental health issues.”
Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer