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Back to school: No unsafe re-opening! No layoffs!

By: 
Pam Johnson

August 21, 2020

 The Ford government’s plan to reopen Ontario schools has been called ‘deadly’, ‘flawed’, ‘a fantasy’ and ‘mindboggling’. Teachers, parents and education workers are furious and terrified.  

A Hamilton teacher with school-age children of her own said ‘Prior to the announcement last week, my mind was open about returning to the workplace. But, I do not feel that safe measures have been put in place.’ 

The plan, which keeps elementary and many secondary class sizes the same, 25-30, as before the pandemic, masking policy that is voluntary, questionable building ventilation and inadequate cleaning protocols, directly contravenes public health guidelines for safety in the COVID pandemic. 

"I answered a survey and told our school board that my kids will be in school in September. Then I immediately changed my mind. Who else is really struggling with this decision? Without a plan, it is hard to know what we are signing them up for." St. Catharines ON parent

The flawed plan will exacerbate the racism and class divide that already exists as stats are showing the disproportionate rate of COVID cases and deaths in Black and POC communities. Many of these people also work low wage, essential service jobs and cannot stay home, so will be forced to send their children to unsafe schools.  

School openings with flawed plans have proved to be a disaster around the world and especially in the US where schools open before Labour Day. Students tested positive on day one and multiple schools have already gone back to virtual learning due to outbreaks. A Georgia high school student was suspended for posting a picture of a crowded hallway. Teachers in dozens of school districts protested. Chicago teachers threatened to strike and, in response, the mayor moved all school to virtual learning. 

"Education assistants  seem to be completely forgotten in this cheap plan. Also, I work with students that have significant physical, medical and behavioural challenges and there is again nothing to address the needs and safety of these students." Ontario education assistant

Safe and just reopening is possible 

The estimated investment to make a safe reopening work in Ontario is $3 billion. Ford government is investing a paltry $300 million. At the same time, Ford has offered private corporations billions in direct funding and tax breaks. Similarly, Trudeau has given billions to bailout the dirty and failing fossil fuel industry as the climate crisis deepens; both signaling their priority is corporate profit over people’s lives. 

"Back in the day when things were semi properly funded a high school like Churchill had 13 caretakers. Now they have six. What does that tell you about our standards and how low they've gotten?" B.C. school custodian

But, a safe school reopening is entirely possible with a commitment to massive investment and to the inclusion of all education workers, parents and students in figuring it out. The money and the expertise are there.

No Layoffs

Shamefully, in Ontario and other provinces layoffs of education workers and cuts are happening on the cusp of school opening.  Workers have already been laid off in several Ontario colleges. Premier Kenney in Alberta plans 20,000 layoffs in the education sector. Virtual learning threatens jobs as provincial governments push on-line learning to justify cuts and privatization of education. 

"If they cared about student mental health, they wouldn’t cut budgets every year, and fight against teachers tooth-and-nail when we fight to fund lower class sizes and more student supports. If they cared, they would give the funding to drastically reduce class sizes, and hire more cleaners, caretakers, etc, so we can do this safely." Saskatchewan teacher

But, a just and workable plan to return to in-person education during the pandemic will require MORE teachers, MORE staff as well as buildings and other resources.

Labour leadership needs to step up

A safe and just reopening is what the labour leadership, especially the leadership of the education workers unions should be pushing and organizing for. Their response has been tepid to date and their statements have not been back up with the kind of organizing on the ground that will be needed.

But, it was only months ago that mass protests of teachers, parents and students had Ford on the ropes because of his government’s cuts to the already dismal level of education funding. Teachers’ unions organized walk-outs, mass protests and coordinated their efforts to fight concessions in collective bargaining. Parents and the general public massively supported these actions. Ford’s popularity was dropping like a stone as his priorities—defunding education—became clear. 

Building the resistance

Even though the pandemic has given Ford a boost in popularity, it is clear that his priorities have not changed. It is time for the labour leadership to step back into the fight. It was the anger and frustration and the organizing of teachers and parents themselves that lit the fire under their union leaders and we need to spark this flame again. 

Within in days of Ford’s school opening announcement a meeting of teacher activists in EFTO, OSSTF, CUPE and other unions was called. A Toronto parents network called a ‘COVID classroom’ protest, where they set up a social distanced classroom with 30 desks at Queens Park.  A demonstration organized by black parents on August 3rdat Queen’s Park demanded that Ford address anti-black racism in education. 

 

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