The month of August, to me, has always been a sign that the end of summer is in sight, even though technically it is less than half over. Of course, this year, there will be no Canadian National Exhibition which normally starts in mid-August and signals to many around these parts that the fall season is at hand.
In many ways, that means new beginnings, most especially this year when the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much of what we can do and how we must do it. This will never be more evident or, likely, more controversial than the reopening of schools.
Last week, the Government of Ontario revealed its plan to reopen public schools in Ontario in September. It is not a perfect plan. It really cannot be. While there has been real progress in containing the pandemic, no one can know for sure how it is going to play out in the months or even years ahead. By definition, then, the plan is risky. But is it also necessary?
The Provincial Government has taken the position that school reopening is critical to learning and development for Ontario students and an important support for families to get back to work and foster the reopening of the economy. I agree with that.
The Ontario plan calls for students from kindergarten to grade eight to attend school five days a week. Social distancing will be required, and other COVID-19 health protocols will be in place including cohort education which means students will be in designated clusters for all classes, recesses, and lunches and will not mix with others. Secondary school students will be taught partly in school and partly through internet learning. At school they will be taught in cohorts of 15 students.
Masks will be required for all students and staff, with the exception of children in kindergarten to grade three where, at the suggestion of health care experts, masks are recommended but not required. Many more public health nurses, mental health workers, and custodians will be employed to ensure safe practises, cleanliness, and support for staff and students.
Of course, there will be critics of this plan. Parents are very understandably worried about their children. Many have expressed concern that students, especially younger ones, will never adhere to social distancing. Others are concerned that the cohort units are too large. They may be right on both counts. School unions, of course, are not supportive. I do think, however, that most teachers and teacher assistants and other support workers, as individuals, just want to help their students in as safe a manner as possible and are willing to take reasonable risks in doing so, just like other frontline workers are doing during this pandemic. I applaud them for that.
Martin Regg Cohn is a veteran columnist for the Toronto Star. I often disagree with him because, in my view, he excels at times as a Liberal apologist. However, even though he managed to get his digs in on the Ford Government in his article in the Star on Friday, he was spot on, in my view, when it came to his opinion on the Government’s plan to reopen public schools in September. Here, in part, is what he had to say:
“The back-to-school plan unveiled Thursday by Education Minister Stephen Lecce is not—despite efforts to demonize him—the devil’s work. It is merely a work in progress, a sensible start in the long road to recovery, albeit short on key details—notably its financial underpinnings.
“The good news is that it goes beyond the benchmarks of other provinces by mandating masks for the vast majority of Ontario’s two million students. Given Doug Ford’s reluctance to impose a mask requirement province-wide for adults, it is a relief to see the premier mandating it for all but the youngest students, in kindergarten to grade 3.
“Whatever shortcomings it may have, the back-to-school protocol is not political, which is why criticisms need not be partisan nor polemical. Pointing fingers at the Progressive Conservative government, or reviving old grudge matches, will not advance student education nor enhance teacher safety.”
He also said this:
“Inevitably, children will come down with infections and teachers will be exposed to transmission. Predictably, the press and the politicians, parents and teachers, will all cry foul.
“The test will be whether the government did what it could and should to protect children in a pandemic, recognizing that keeping them captive at home would harm them more. There are gaps in the plan, but they are not gaping holes that cannot be plugged with political will, a little goodwill, and financial wherewithal.”
In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has paralyzed us. There was the lockdown, economic instability, changes in work venues, change in the way we do a lot of things, and real worry about the future. But if life is to continue, we need to come out of the shadows as safely as possible but, nevertheless, carry on. Reopening our public schools is an important and necessary step in that direction.
The plan put forward by the Ontario Government includes an important element: recognition that with very few exceptions, parents are best qualified to decide what is best for their children. The Province has provided parents and school boards with three options, one of which is to keep their children out of school and educate them from home. The other two provide partial or full-time in-school teaching, supplemented by online learning. It should be up to the parents and not the government to decide which option works best for them.
There are challenges ahead as to how, in a post-COVID-19 world, education can best be delivered to our young people. Inevitably, there will be significant changes. But that is a discussion for another day. Right now, under current conditions, we need to get our children back to school as safely as this sometimes-cruel world will allow.
At least the Ford Government has a plan. It may not be a perfect plan but as Martin Regg Cohn has said, it is a sensible start on the long road to recovery.
I, for one, can support that.
Main image: Alexandra Koch / Pixabay
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!