For many families across the country a time that many have been dreading is here. In Quebec it came last week. For many across Ontario, tomorrow or next week will be the day. The run of the school year usually brings stresses and concerns, that’s nothing new. But normally they include concerns about the challenges of a new class, maybe a new school or things of that nature.  

In 2020, most of those stresses seem very minor compared to those that parents, teachers and students face this time around. Like everything else COVID has turned schools on their collective heads and forced governments to make tough decisions about how to re-open schools safely. They’ve had months to figure out how they would do this, allowing some semblance  of normalcy to return while allowing children to continue with their learned. But here we are, on the goal line, and we’ve seeing just how badly some haven’t done their homework. In Ontario, its lead us to stories like these from the past 24 hours, which show how badly the Ford Conservatives have handled this matter:

I want to start this off by saying as a parent and the spouse of a teacher, I wasn’t expecting perfection when it came to the re-opening of schools. I wasn’t expecting no changes or inconveniences, because given the circumstances, that would have been totally unreasonable. Long story short, I and many other parents were likely willing to give this government some slack if things didn’t do perfectly. That was an advantage of good will that this government started off with, and they have managed to fritter it away with amazing speed and efficiency through ugly politics as normal and flat out hubris.

Instead of dealing with the big issues at hand and making the tough decisions that they required, the Ford Conservatives waffled, put off and avoided them at all costs. Instead they announced “new funding” that either school boards either already had or was already spoken for. Of the funds announced for retrofitting HVAC units and such, they announced it all so late that boards couldn’t possibly get those systems in place before the start of schools. Teachers unions, school boards and parents have clearly said, time and again, that schools needed to have smaller classes to ensure proper physical distancing measures, which would involve major infusions of money to make happen yet none of that has come.

In response, Ford and his Education Minister Stephen Lecce have fallen back an old-school political BS that is particularly distasteful in these important moments. When it was pointed out that boards could use the HVAC money in time, he attacked them claiming they can’t be “working on government time.” When teachers’ unions pointed out the health concerns around his plan, Ford attacked them furiously saying that they are the problem, not him and that Ontario’s Chief Medical officer supports their plan. Of course, that ignore the fact that the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario is calling for his resignation, not exactly making him the greatest validator for his policies. When a reporter pointed out that there were concerns that school boards may need to collapse classes into large ones to work within his funding formula constraints in these times, he said this:

He also went onto say that only he and his ministers are telling the truth, which looks like a spectacular lie when you see that story above from the Toronto Star. The fact is that instead of creating smaller, safer classes in many Ontario schools, Ford’s policy has somehow managed to create larger classes with less space between students, while also leave other classrooms empty. Seriously how in the Hell does he think this is alright? He keeps telling everyone under the sun that “he’s done everything that he possibly can” to make things right, but that’s clearly just not the case.

While it’s true that class sizes usually go through an adjustment in the Fall, what Ford and Co. won’t say is that what’s happening now isn’t normal. In normal times when the sizes of classes change, it’s usually because you end up with more students enrolled than expected, meaning you need to make that work. Ironically, many times that involves creating new, smaller classes and hiring new teachers to teach them, exactly the opposite of what Ford refuses to do here. This is extremely abnormal because this “collapsing” of classes is happening because of the large number of students who will be learning online in a way that’s yet to be clear. So that means that there are fewer students in the school and under the current funding formula, that means fewer classes, less flexibility (so larger classes) and potentially fewer teachers. That’s precisely the opposite of what this moment demands, yet this is what Ford’s lazy do-nothing plan has brought us.

You can add to that the other story shown above about the Upper Canada District School Board’s plan to live stream classes, a plan that doesn’t pass the test either pedagogically or even under privacy laws. Schools have to get parents permission to put a simple photo of a kid in a publication or an advertisement, yet at the same time they want to live stream entire classrooms online so anyone can watch them? Are you serious? Oh they’re so serious that when local unions pointed out the serious problems with this “plan”, board chair John McAllister cried that “education unions are spreading “misleading and inaccurate information””. Hmm, where did I hear that before?

To make matters worse, as the unions also point out, the way you teach a child in front of you in a classroom is extremely different than if you’re broadcasting on a live stream. How you do it, what you do and honestly, which students that could learn best from it, all would change. The fact is that you can’t properly teach all kids at all levels that way, period. End of story. And the younger the kids are, the harder that gets to be.

The sadly ironic part of this “proposal”, which seems to be going ahead because there is no time to do anything else, is that if the board had used video conferencing software like Zoom or others, you could have dealt with both of those issues, the privacy and the teaching pieces. There seems to be no explanation for why they would do it this way and expose those kids to that risk and a lower quality of education. The only explanation that would make sense would be a lack of budget to pay for Zoom licenses, and if that’s what’s keeping that from happening, that’s a criminal shame. Of course, none of that helps those kids who have no access to proper internet, which is a higher than normal amount in that board, which is very rural.

All in all, like so much of what’s happened in 2020, this return to school in Ontario is a bloody mess. The difference is that while we weren’t expecting perfection and were expecting changes or mistakes, we were expecting basic competence. We were expecting this government to achieve very basic, minimal levels of achievement when it came to re-opening schools in a way that was safe and gave our children the best chance to learn. Ford, Lecce and the entire Ontario Conservative government have failed miserably on that score and if they don’t make a total 180 in policy and approach fast, it will get worse. At a time when we expect our government to put public safety first, this government has managed to do the polar opposite. Ford and Lecce can tell us all day long that their plan is the best in the country, but those words don’t make it true.

Parents, teachers and students are seeing what they are returning to tomorrow and next week and can clearly see that this plan isn’t the best. It isn’t even adequate and if this government were truly doing their best or actually trying to tackle the problems here, people would be willing to give them some slack. Instead they are taking that benefit of the doubt and throwing it away by attacking teachers’ unions, media and whoever else dares to speak the truth they refuse to face. That sends the signal to people that they aren’t trying to get this right and are ducking their responsibilities. So while people have patience with their government right now, they have no patience at all for that crap. It’s time for the Ford Conservatives to stop the blaming and get to work. Right now he’s failing this test and it’s our kids and teachers who are going to pay the price for his failure more than anyone else.