Throughout the response to the COVID-19 global pandemic we’ve seen governments of all stripes step up and respond in some pretty impressive ways. The responses have not been perfect but when you look at where we are in Canada compared to other countries, we have done pretty well. In my view one of the reasons why we’ve done well is because we’ve learned from our mistakes and the mistakes of others.
We’ve pivoted when needed and have kept an open mind when things have changed due to greater knowledge of the disease itself and approaches that work in fighting it. It hasn’t made things as straightforward as some would like and it has at times created some understandable confusion, but what it has done has taken an approach that was less about political dogma and more about working with the facts before us. It’s an approach that has served us well and one that I would hope that our political leaders would continue to stick with.
But the longer the fight against this disease continues, the more that approach is waning and we’re starting to see a return to past political behaviours. That’s not a good thing in my view and in Ontario, it means making decisions that fly in the face of the evidence. Last week the Ford Conservative government announced their return to school plan for the Fall and in essence it involves a lot of the status quo. Elementary school students will be all sent back into the same sized classrooms, in the same numbers, some in masks, while high school students will go to a modified system to limit class sizes and move part of their instruction online.
It’s a set up that completely flies in the face of not only their original announcement of three options which local boards could choose, it also flies in the face of expert evidence about physical distancing and how the disease is transmitted. As a parent of an elementary student and the spouse of an elementary teacher, it’s something that seriously makes me nervous and a lot of that again comes down to learning the lessons of mistakes that have been made. We aren’t the first jurisdictions in the World to face this challenge so you’d think that we would be looking at those experiences for lessons to learn. If we did, you’d see these experiences just from this week alone. First, let’s start in the US, in Georgia:
Those two stories are the kinds of things that while unsettling are good examples of the kinds of things you can expect to see in jurisdictions that don’t take COVID-19 seriously. Heck, Georgia is the state where the Governor is using the Mayor of Atlanta to keep her from talking about taking this seriously, so it shouldn’t be a shock to see stories like these from there. But once you get past that part there are parts of this story that should worry people sending their kids back to schools that are going back to normal class sizes and alike.
They are just starting up the school year and you’re already seeing cases of people getting sick. In that one school board you see nearly 300 staff sick and unable to report for work for who knows how long. It shows how the disease can be transmitted in a community. It’s something that will only be made worse when you’ve got lots of kids and teachers crammed into classrooms all day without proper physically distancing only to then go home to their families and expose them to whatever they were just exposed to. But while that situation in Georgia is just starting to develop, another story that came out yesterday talking about the experience from Israel from months ago with chilling details that also teaches us lessons from the mistakes they made:
If we want to look at a situation closer to analogous to our circumstances in Ontario and Canada, this might be it. When Israel went to re-open their schools full bore in May, they weren’t a hotspot for COVID-19 like Georgia is today. But their experience and approach created hotspots by themselves and should serve as a warning to us here. They moved too fast, too far and too soon in a move that seemed to be more guided by political wishes than fact-based decision making. According to reporting in the New York Times after days of re-opening they saw cases grow, going from “students’ homes and then to other schools and neighborhoods, ultimately infecting hundreds of students, teachers and relatives.” That forced tens of thousands of students and teachers to be quarantined, not to mention the measures that would need to be taken by family members and others exposed to them.
Dr. Hagai Levine, a professor of epidemiology at Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health pointed out that even if the numbers of cases are low, the disease isn’t gone. So if you re-open things too fast, you give the disease what it needs to grow back to force. As Dr. Levine put it, “you can open the education system, but you have to do it gradually, with certain limits, and you have to do it in a very careful way.”
That brings us back to Ontario and Doug Ford’s re-opening plan. That plan can be described as many things, but you can’t call it “gradual”, “within certain limits” or “very careful”. And for all the credit that Ford has earned for his response on other parts of this pandemic, lately he has been more of his normal, bungling self that we knew pre-pandemic. In fact when it comes to what is safe to re-open, his opinion is one that I am skeptical of, thanks to points like these that I was reminded of yesterday:
Remember folks, Doug Ford wanted Major League Baseball to operate in Toronto and felt that their plan was “top-shelf” and would be a great success. If you’ve been watching the progress of MLB’s re-opening, you can easily see that has not been the case at all. The Blue Jays themselves, while not having any cases of their own, have seen games and a whole series postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks on teams like the Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, and others. Add to that big outbreaks within the St. Louis Cardinals and that’s just the first week.
You can see that MLB’s re-opening plan has been the worst of any of the major sports and that is what Ford saw as the gold standard. So when it comes to school, it makes me leery to think about what is guiding his thoughts on what he thinks is appropriate there. That all lead to this comment from Ford yesterday, as the government faces growing backlash from his ill-conceived plan:
Now that folks is the bungling Doug Ford we frequently saw pre-COVID a whole lot. Ford made an announcement in July around schools and when the public reacted negatively, he flipped and did the opposite. And this time he made an announcement to try to enact that opposite poorly, the public reacts negatively again and boom, he disowns his own decision. Ironically the only physical distancing involved in Ford’s return to school plan is the distance that Ford is trying to put between himself and it.
Ford tried to say that this was the experts plan, not his, yet the plan itself ignores the advice of experts on simple measures like physical distancing in the classroom. It should also note that the experts also advised the government should enact measures that would involve “arranging classroom furniture to leave space between students” and “having smaller class sizes”, both things which the Ford plan won’t do. As TVO’s Matt Gurney put it last week, the Ford Conservatives school plan “has a whiff of MLB decision-making to it: a choice to just proceed, knowing it’ll probably blow up at some point but hoping that the inevitable failure will be minor and containable.” As a citizen in my community, that worries me. As the parent of a young student and husband of a teacher, that scares the Hell out of me.
It’s amazing to me that after being in this pandemic so long that our government has stopped learning from the lessons that other jurisdictions have learned through their mistakes. The lack of clear direction, Ford’s tendency to flip-flop in the face of pressure and his apparent unwillingness to be on the wrong side of public opinion is creating an environment where we have no leadership at all on this serious issue. I should be clear that there is no perfect solution to this issue. Schools should re-open in some way, but that will mean slow, measured and not what we were used to pre-pandemic.
We know that keeping space between ourselves is vital to stopping this disease in its tracks and that should be the main concern when re-opening schools. That means having smaller classes and that means facing a serious choice between two paths: Either you re-open schools with kids going on alternate days to have the smaller classes within current budgets, or you re-open schools full time with smaller classes, hiring more teachers to teach those smaller classes and find spaces to put those extra classes. In taking this approach, the Ford Conservatives are doing neither, trying to re-open schools 5 days a week without spending the money necessary to make it happen.
At this point, it’s likely too late for the Ford Conservatives to get this right before classes start in September and even if it was possible in such a short period of time, I’m far from confident that this Premier or Education Minister Stephen Lecce could be the ones to pull it off. It looks like Ontario is lined up to repeat the mistakes that we’ve seen in places like Georgia, Israel and elsewhere simply because of political incompetence. Re-opening schools too fast just to re-ignite this disease in our communities will set us further back.
We do need schools to re-open and we need to do whatever we can to limit the exposure to this disease in the process. Ontario’s plan fails in that basic requirement and is setting up our communities, families, and all for greater failures down the road. We can’t re-open school to the “old normal” yet that is what Ontario is mostly proposing, especially for elementary schools. We can’t wish this away and we need to face the fact that schools may not re-open to “normal” for a while to come. That’s not easy to accept but it’s in moments like these that we need governments to lead on these matters. But instead of leading, the Ford Conservatives are doing the opposite, just like they did pre-pandemic. That return to normal is one that we can ill afford, yet here it comes at the worst possible time.