As a teacher in Ontario who is set to resume school next week, I’ve had a number of people ask me how I feel about our September return. So I want to share a few thoughts around the complexities and issues with our PC government’s plan to rush students back to school.
Our communities need public schools
Firstly, we should acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about the mental health and wellbeing for children who can’t be together, and understand that a full return to school can help this situation. There are also families who can’t afford to keep their kids at home any longer, and it should infuriate us all that there hasn’t been more financial support for families at this time. Additionally, teachers love teaching, and we want to be with our students again the very second we can guarantee their safety and security.
Unfortunately, the Ford government has not come through for our students or for anyone working in public education. Their rush to return on September 8 is putting everyone’s safety at risk. Teachers have been expected to make larger than life accommodations to their physical spaces with minimal budgets and no clear guidelines or practices that are standardized throughout the province. Some teachers still have yet to be contacted by their schools with their updated policies and protocols.
If your school hasn’t been given enough funding for adequate sanitization and cleaning supplies, is an older building that has not been able to update its ventilation systems, has not been able to hire more teachers to accommodate smaller classes, has not installed sanitizers throughout the school, does not have enough adequately sized rooms for socially distant classes, etc. – then the safety of students can’t be guaranteed and students should not be going back there. Half days and student rotations can’t outrun a virus when the ventilation system in the school hasn’t been updated since the 1980s or when there are classrooms with no windows, as is the case in many schools across Ontario.
Ford is failing us
Additionally, the Ministry of Education in Ontario – which in its latest gaf, tweeted that it did not know what an IEP (Individual Education Plan) was – has provided our public school teachers with very basic advice through online training modules. The ministry has suggested waiting at least one day before marking paper assignments that have been collected, and then waiting another day to then hand back those paper assignments. As if that step can make up for the fact that smaller class sizes are not guaranteed throughout Ontario and as if ventilation – which is one of the most important factors in stopping the spread of droplets – is irrelevant if you’re just washing your hands before marking papers.
Indeed, education has been underfunded for decades, and we are now seeing the consequences of not maintaining and/or rebuilding these older schools, and not investing in teachers, EAs, and other education workers to ensure that we have smaller class sizes and clean and healthy schools.
Despite Ford’s Safe School photo-op in Toronto on Tuesday, and his assurance that we have the “best plan in Canada”, four major teachers unions have filed a labour board complaint in an effort to reduce class sizes. Of course Ford has responded by saying that the unions just want to fight. However, anyone with an understanding of the cuts to education that the PC government has implemented knows that the unions are just drawing attention to the underfunding crisis that has now reached a boiling point.
Other provinces and entire countries have gone back to school with minimal or mixed success at keeping COVID rates down, and it’s shocking that we are ignoring these examples instead of learning from them.
The Florida Department of Education created detailed reopening plans for each county, but an accidental leak from the Florida Department of Health showed that from daycares to colleges, nearly 900 students had tested positive during a two-week period in August when schools were reopening. Indiana schools were told by their lawmakers that if they didn’t offer in person instruction, that they could lose funding, and they’ve had over 100 cases of COVID across dozens of schools since reopening. Sure, it may be easy to point to United State’s high rates of COVID and say that we are in a different situation in Canada, but even Quebec, which had some schools reopen just last week, has had at last three cases of COVID in their students which has now put more than 80 students in isolation.
The truth is that we don’t have enough resources or time to figure out how to best keep children, educators, and support staff safe. Public education now more than ever needs more funding for this, and more financial support for parents who have had no choice but to keep their children home.
An attack on public education
I work in a private school and we were called back the first week of August to begin prepping. While we’ve been putting in full days to prepare, running simulations, etc., my school isn’t even doing the most! Other private schools have installed plexiglass barriers everywhere – including around the teachers’ desks, have hired bathroom attendants to specifically clean the bathrooms, installed sensor technology to high touch surfaces such as doors, washrooms, and water fountains, installed “bipolar ionization technology” for air purification, and the list goes on and on.
Private schools are now marketing themselves as a “safe alternative” for this year, but this sense of safety and stability comes with a hefty price tag as some schools charge at least 20k for their yearly tuition. Private sector education’s championing for a September reopening is naked self-interest. A safe September should not just be for the rich; all students and their families deserve proper protections and a sense of security.
As teachers are waiting to hear if they will have jobs in the public board for September, many of us have been approached by parents, or have been forwarded job postings, from wealthy families looking for “pod” teachers. These “pandemic pods” or “learning pods” consist of small groups of children (usually up to eight) learning from one teacher, and some teachers are being requested for morning jobs, evening jobs, and in some cases to teach these pods all day. The salaries are flexible, but parents generally pay about $80-$100 per hour for their child. While this sounds like it has a similar structure to tutoring, which many teachers do on their own time anyways, some of these postings that I’ve been sent by my friends have red flags. For example, some ads have requested that teachers do not wear masks and commit to the social bubble of the pod, while others are clear that the pod is happening independent of a virtual curriculum from public schools and is in fact a form of homeschooling.
Learning pods may sound like they solve a problem, but in doing so, they are actually creating new ones for the public. These pods, consciously or unconsciously, can lead to racial segregation amongst students, and will absolutely cause the already existing achievement gap between wealthy and non-wealthy students to further widen.
In terms of how it advantages students, let’s consider class size. Public education has been sounding the alarm bell for years on its out of control and ever growing class sizes, as we know that students benefit from one-on-one instruction in smaller group settings. The size of these learning pods allow teachers to spend valuable time with each student, and this is the type of interaction that public education has been longing for. It is obvious that students who can access these pods will receive the attention that every student deserves and will thus finish ahead of those that are denied this opportunity. This will only further entrench racial and class inequality.
How much money your family has should not be a factor in determining your success, and these pandemic pods are highlighting the already existing inequality in access to resources that leads to higher achievement.
With COVID-19 cases slowly making a comeback, you may be wondering why online learning is not happening in all schools in place of this physical return? Again, this could be because of the pressure from the private school sector.
Online courses offered by learning centres like TVO generally run at $500/course, thus private schools are very invested in a September return to profit off of tuition. Why would families pay large amounts of money for a private school that’s entirely online, when they can just pay $500 per an online course? Private schools need students in the class to be making money.
The importance of safety and security for students in our schools is literally a class issue, and I can’t help but feel that part of the reason for rushing a September return is being done to drive business to the for-profit business sector of private schools.
A lot of schools are not prepared for a September return, and until we can guarantee the safety of every student at every school – not just the private schools – I do think we should delay going back. Just because something has always been done one way, does not mean that we shouldn’t be creative, think outside of the box, and steer away from a traditional September start date.
A #SafeSeptember is really about safe communities and public health for all. If schools become another vector for virus transmission, we will all be worse off. This is why if we are going ahead and restarting schools we must also ensure all workers have access to paid sick days.
As Jess Lyons of the Ontario Parent Action Network noted, “when there is no mechanism for paid sick days and the parents of a child cannot stay home to take care of themselves or their children without risking their job, then we’re increasing the risk for infections and undermining safety at our schools.”
All education workers, students, and parents deserve a #SafeSeptember.
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