There has been a good bit of controversy this week over Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to keep schools closed in this province until September. Here is, in part, what the Toronto Star wrote about it in a recent editorial:
“There was no Ford government U-turn. No last minute reprieve for children and their beleaguered parents. And very little sense to be found in the provincial announcement on Wednesday that schools will not reopen before September.
“Exactly why can’t kids go back to in-person learning, as health experts and educators alarmed over growing mental health concerns and learning gaps have called for?
“Well, we all know that it’s so patios and non-essential retail can reopen sooner than expected this month.”
Well, sorry, we do not all know that. Maybe the left-leaning, anti-Ford, Toronto Star knows that. Perhaps the Star’s influential vice chair, former Premier David Peterson, a staunch Liberal partisan, knows that. And maybe even those who just plain dislike Doug Ford and don’t want to give him an inch would like to believe it too. But not everyone does.
To start with, not all parents believed it was in their child’s best interest to interrupt the learning routine their children had been used to for the better part of a year for what would effectively amount to just three weeks. A number of parents, in research I read, believed that the adjustment period from one form of learning to another would take up too much of that time and also, with second COVID vaccinations in Canada, including Ontario, at only 7 per cent, the risk of infection in an indoor setting was worrisome.
Certainly, many of these parents could have used a break, but most of them were also willing to put the best interests of their children first.
As for the so-called learning gaps referred to in the Star’s editorial, if there were any they were not going to be resolved in three short weeks. Also, to suggest significant learning gaps is to suggest teachers were not doing their jobs, and I do not believe that for a minute.
Everything that I have read, seen, and heard suggests to me that teachers have stepped up to the plate under difficult circumstances. They have been innovative and creative, and they have worked with their students to maintain academic standards. They are, in my view, true frontline workers who have adapted to extraordinary circumstances.
Now let’s examine the claim that the only reason schools were not reopened for the last three weeks of the term were only so that “patios and non-essential retail can reopen earlier than expected this month”.
First, phase one of the reopening will now not likely begin until originally scheduled on June 14 because of a spike in COVID infections resulting from the May long weekend. As well, there are other reasons to open phase one as quickly as safely possible.
There is a strong chance that reopening schools for three weeks in June would result in another spike in COVID infections and its variants, further delaying the ability of the province to begin opening up.
In spite of what some “experts” say, modelling from the province’s science table indicated that “returning kids and teachers back to school before they are vaccinated will lead to thousands of new cases of COVID-19.”
Doug Ford’s response to that was, “As your premier, these aren’t risks I am willing to take.”
The longer that reopening phases are delayed because of a spike in the COVID-19 virus or its variants that come from outside of the province, the longer young people will be unable to play outside with their friends, and the more at risk summer sports and attendance at summer camps will be. The question then arises, what is more important for their mental health, three weeks of in-school learning or a summer of near-normal activity?
The Ford Government did authorize outside graduation ceremonies for secondary and primary school students. In fact, they appeared to offer this for all grades, which is neither traditional nor practical. But graduating from elementary school or high school is really special to many people, often a lifelong memory. It is a chance to really celebrate, to say goodbye to their classmates and teachers and to whoop it up a little.
Last year there was no choice other than virtual graduations. This year there is a choice. But this year, Ontario’s school principals appear to have shut it down. I have a problem with that. The principals, or their spokespeople, say that three weeks notice is not enough for them to move graduation ceremonies from virtual to live. Their association, the Ontario Principals’ Council wrote this:
“With only a few weeks left until the academic year ends, schools have already made plans to celebrate their graduates… It is unrealistic and disrespectful to Ontario educators to expect such a considerable shift in planning at this point in the school year.”
So, I spoke to three either former or current school principals about this. Two would be able to make the changes in a heartbeat. The third was more circumspect and I appreciated his viewpoint. He pointed out that graduation plans were in the works for months and many of these plans were past the point of changing. He said that many teachers were now into issues related to completing the academic year and had little time to pivot on graduation decisions. He also said there could be logistical issues such as not having time to secure sufficient chairs not held by schools for an outside ceremony.
All of these are legitimate challenges, but, in my view, just that. Not roadblocks.
Surely most of the plans for a virtual graduation would be transportable to an outside event, masks in place, speakers and speeches, diplomas, prizes, and so on. And surely three weeks is enough time to work out the other problems related to an outdoor ceremony. Many others, including teachers, have altered course in less time, with greater changes, because of the varying nature of pandemic issues.
Sadly, I cannot help but wonder if the Ontario Principals’ Council is not more interested in sticking it to the Ford Government than they are in helping graduating students, proud parents, and, I know, many teachers of these students to celebrate their achievements and to say goodbye in person. They could have done it if they wanted to. What a pity that they didn’t.
In a May 29 article, journalist Martin Regg Cohn said this: “A government must weigh medical health and mental health. It must consider pedagogy and parenting. It must look at community transmission rates and personal risk tolerance. It must gauge the spread of a deadly new variant from India – now widespread in the U.K. – while our borders and airports remain only partly secured.”
On that, he is right.
The follow-up, of course, is that then a decision has to be made. On balance, in relation to this issue, is it better to open in-school learning for three weeks and risk a spike in COVID-19 and variant infections or is it better to stay the course, keep the numbers down, and when they get to the desired level, begin to reopen the province, for young people, for the much-needed relief of pandemic fatigue for everyone, young and old alike, and to restart a fragile economy?
The Ford Government has made their decision regarding the opening of in-class learning in June. Some will agree with it and many others will not or will find a reason to blame him for it. I am sure I will hear about that.
But to suggest, as much of the media and opposition critics have, that this decision was made by the Ford government only on the basis of opening up patios and pleasing their friends, and at the expense of denying young people an education, belies the criteria on which the government actually reached the conclusion they did, ignores the consequences of further COVID spikes, dismisses the issue of mental health, promotes disinformation, and places the emphasis far more on partisan party politics than it does on dealing with the reality of the problem.
Why does this remind me of the United States?
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc. and enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.
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