COLIN MACKAY: Prioritized investment would make schools even safer

Colin MacKay jpg, BI

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The substantial increase in the number of COVID-19 (virus) cases Monday has many Ontarians worried.

Toronto, Peel and Ottawa are three hotspot areas to watch. Many parents decided at the last minute to remove their children from schools and place them in virtual classes. An already difficult time in placing staff and students just became even more problematic. Add in the fact all over Ontario there is a lack of school bus drivers and one senses parents are panicking. Parents are concerned about their children’s safety. Listening to Education Minister Stephen Lecce answer questions in Parliament would make one wonder why anybody should be worried. Yet, there is a blatant disconnect from his answers to reality.

The Sick Kids Report emphasized, ‘Smaller class sizes should be a priority strategy as it will aid in physical distancing and reduce potential spread…’. Lecce claims class sizes are acceptably small. However, there is plenty of evidence to show class sizes of at least 30 are all throughout the province. In fact, as parents have removed their children due to these concerns, classes are collapsing, increasing in size, and at the same time, ensuring certain classrooms remain empty and unused. This is ridiculous when almost every medical expert in the province states physical distancing should be a priority. Two metres apart is the goal. In any class of 25 or more this is impossible.

The lack of bus drivers has eliminated some routes in boards of education. A regular school bus would hold 48 students. In too many instances, the busses carry more. That means there would be three to a seat. Once again physical distancing is not being emphasized. Is money the problem or is the issue with class sizes or bussing?

A recent Financial Accountability Report sheds some light on financing.

First of all, ‘the federal governments share of direct support measures is 97 per cent and the provincial governments is three per cent.’ No wonder the Premier is getting along with the federal government. As well, ‘Schools and child care providers will receive $1.3 billion in funding, mostly to support public health measures at schools and child care centres.’ It is a good investment toward schools, but, obviously, for smaller and safer class sizes more would be required. To reduce the number of students on busses would cost more money too. And as an added incentive, paying bus drivers higher wages might encourage more people to apply to reduce shortages.

Is more money available to warrant added safety for the children of this province? Once again, according the FAO Report, ‘unallocated COVID-19 funds is $6.7 billion.’ In fairness, about half that money has yet to flow from the federal government in transfer payments. That would still leave more than $3 billion for the province to use.

Physical distancing for an in-school learning environment could have been achieved. Even back in the summer, Lecce stated, ‘We know kids need to be in class. We’ve heard this loud and clear. The mental health impacts are clear on our kids.’ He even stated with an adaptive delivery model, which would have included in-class and remote learning, class sizes would not exceed 15. Somehow, somewhere, the emphasis on class sizes of 15 was lost. Instead class sizes have essentially remained the same. The government has invested in PPE, but safeguarding class sizes became smaller to achieve physical distancing was not a priority. Lecce has provided funding for school boards to add more custodians and nurses.

When parents read physical distancing is impossible in far too many classrooms, they start to question whether or not its safe to send their children. For the most part, schools are reasonably safe, but they would be even safer with prioritized investments.