Back on Monday Ontario announced it’s plans to move most of the province into Phase Three of re-opening, something that many people welcome despite the unknown that we face ahead of us. Included in this next phase will be the re-opening of bars, something that I have to admit has thrown me for a loop. That’s mostly because we’ve found ourselves in a position where Ontario has a plan to re-open bars before figuring out how to safely re-open schools. That sounds crazy when you think about it, yet at the same time so on brand for 2020.
That comparison hasn’t been lost on others, including folks in the media. That’s lead to more and more questions of the Ford Conservatives about how they are going to ensure that schools re-open safely in the Fall. And let’s be fair, so far their answers have been a mixture of confusing contradictions that have left many parents shaking their heads and quite concerned. Sensing that growing sense of anxiety out there, media has been asking more about this. That lead to comments from Premier Ford himself on Monday, which brought me as a parent to a bit of a breaking point:
In the span of a few weeks we’ve seen this Ford Conservative government go from “we’ll have one of three options and local school boards will decide how to proceed” to “I want students in school full time in the Fall, full stop.” Needless to say, both of these things can’t be true and really folks this doesn’t fill me with confidence in what these folks are doing.
When some boards announced that they will be starting the year with a hybrid model, it made sense when it came to trying to manage public health safety while working within the resources that boards had on hand. Having kids in school for alternating days would allow for the proper distancing and cleaning measures in schools, without needing to find too much extra space or hire extra staff. The big problem with that approach though was that it put huge burdens on parents when their kids are not at school and what it would do to their ability to work or return to work.
Adding further to that, we’re seeing public health officials speaking out talking about the mental health concerns for students if schools don’t return full time in the Fall, a totally legit concern and something that needs to be a part of this discussion. But if you want to have schools fully re-opened in the Fall, operating a normal five days a week under the measures needed to ensure the safety of kids and staff, you can’t possibly pull that off with the budgets that boards already have. To drive that point home, today the Toronto District School Board released some stats on what it would take to pull this off, and they shouldn’t come as a shock:
Toronto may have the biggest school board in the country and their numbers may be on the higher end of the scale, this shows the big problem Ontario faces if they try to do what Premier Ford and Education Minister Lecce are now demanding. TDSB estimates that it would cost $250 million this year alone to hire an extra 2,500 teachers to staff those smaller, distanced classes. And oh, they probably wouldn’t be able to deliver French classes too. That disclosure doesn’t include the extra cost of trying to find new classroom space to house those new classrooms, either inside existing school buildings, with new portables or other creative options. For a board like TDSB, it’s easy to see how ensuring that all kinds were in school five days a week could run nearly an extra $500 million a year. These are figures that boards can’t come up with on their own, meaning that the province would need to pony up the cash.
When you start to roll that same approach out across the province, you quickly get into the many billions of dollars in extra education spending, and that’s if you can find the staff to fill those positions. How would it look if Ontario suddenly had a shortage of tens of thousands of teachers from Manitoba to Quebec? Can you image the sudden competition to fill those teaching spots? Can you imagine the pressures on rural and Northern boards, trying to fill openings in places like Sioux Lookout, Kapuskasing and Madoc when teachers have tones of options in places like Toronto, Mississauga, London, Ottawa, or Windsor? Do you even have enough teachers out of work to fill those positions? And where to do put them, because how do you create thousands of new actual classrooms in time. And oh, to top it off, you’ve got a matter of weeks to make that all happen.
That is the clusterbleep of a situation to find ourselves in now, as it now feels like the Ford Conservatives have wasted months where they could have gotten ready for the decision they knew was coming. It was clear months ago that what happened in the Fall regarding schools was going to come down to a simple choice: either you re-open schools with the same resources in a modified schedule, or you re-open schools full time and pay the substantial costs to make that happen. There was never a third way where Ontario could re-open schools full time without having to spend billions to make it work. Yet instead of facing that reality early on and getting ready, the Ford Conservatives have waffled, waived, and wasted time, trying to have their cake and eat it too for as long as they could. Well that period is at an end and now it’s time to face this because frankly, somethings gotta give.
We are about five weeks from schools opening in some parts of Ontario and as much as boards and teachers are doing their best to be ready for the Fall, there is no way they are going to be ready to go at this point. That’s mostly because of the mixed signals coming from Queen’s Park and the unwillingness to face the cold hard facts about the money it will take to deliver what they now say they want. I’ve given this government slack on this matter for a while, mostly because it’s not an easy situation. But it was also because I assumed that they were having these conversations and making these decisions a couple of months ago, allowing for everyone to properly prepare. It’s now clear that benefit of the doubt on my part was misplaced and we’re staring a totally mess in the face. Something has to give here and it’s time for the Ford Conservatives to pick a lane and stick to it. Students, parents, and teachers deserve some clarity at this point because that’s the only way we can prepare for whatever less-than-ideal situation we’re going to be thrust into. That will only come with a decision by the Premier on what they will do. Will they pony up the money to allow full-time classes for all in the Fall, or will they stick with current budgets and have boards have to hybrid their way through it? There is no third way ahead and they owe Ontarians a decision.