Over the past couple of months, we've seen a gradual return to "normal" as provinces across the country have been implementing Phase 2 and 3 of re-opening restaurants, public parks, entertainment venues etc. during the summer. However, recently we have seen another spike in cases of COVID-19, notably in Ontario, Alberta and even in British Columbia, which previously had one of the lowest per-capita number of active cases in the world.
With the new school year looming in less than a month, provincial governments are grappling with how to send kids back to class in the midst of a pandemic. British Columbia has yet to finalize its plan, so I will come back to them in a future episode. For Ontario's part, Premier Doug Ford held a press conference last week in which he addressed criticisms that the province was seemingly laissez-faire about its plan to send students back to school.
Class Sizes: A Potential Petri Dish
Remember the Ontario teachers' strike back in March? I'm willing to bet that Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce, the education minister, would love it if you didn't. But thanks to this blog, I'm going to remind them (and you as well) of everything they said about teachers, and their unions.
After the ETFO came to an agreement with the province to end the strike, schools were closed indefinitely as the situation worsened in Ontario and cases of COVID-19 continued to escalate. When it looked like the school year was fated not to continue, the memories of the teachers' strike were lost among the headlines praising the Ontario government for how it turned a corner, flattened the curve, and generally had set aside its political agenda in order to listen to the best medical advice available at the time.
Fast forward to July, where the federal government announced $7B of funding to go to Ontario for COVID-19 relief. The funding announcement did not take a second wave of cases into account, nor did it provide any specifics on when the funding would come or how it was to be divided up by the province. Then, less than a month later, this happened:
So, let me get this straight: Ontario just received 7 BILLION dollars from the federal government, and Doug Ford's cheap excuse on dangerously cramming up to 30 students in a classroom amounts to "wishing" he could do something about the situation. Even worse, the school boards will have to use their own money already allocated for the school year to hire staff that the government got rid of. I can't even begin to tell you what's wrong with that idea. It's also worth noting that just 2 months ago, the education minister apparently had a plan in place to address class sizes. What happened?
To put things in perspective here, just last year Ontario laid out a plan to cut over 3,000 teaching positions within the next 4 years, while reducing the per-pupil funding in Ontario by increasing class sizes in Grade 9-12 to 28 per class. Let's also not forget the fact that Doug Ford took 5 months off last year. When it's politically convenient, Doug Ford is willing to do just about anything. Why can't the same ring true for addressing the needs of Ontarians? This should be a no brainer. Speaking of brainless, by the way, let's pivot now to what's going on in Alberta's schools.
Alberta's Aberdeen Angus (Mc)Beef
If you haven't had the (mis)fortune of knowing who Angus McBeath was until now, I salute you. While he is certainly a person who has served as a public educator for over 40 years across a number of school districts in North America, and has been a speaker and consultant since his retirement in 2005, you'd never know it by listening to the rambling mess that was last week's press conference. Seriously, watch this and tell me if you can make any sense of what he was saying.
Now under normal circumstances, we could just chalk it up to another bizarre PR stunt gone awry, or someone who hasn't looked over their notes before going live on TV, but these aren't normal circumstances. We are in the middle of a pandemic, for crying out loud. People like Angus McBeath should NOT be in charge of anything even remotely important right now. We need competency in our public institutions, especially when it comes to managing vulnerable populations. Instead, we get tone deaf missives from politicians, like this one:
Think about this for a second. The minister in charge of education in Alberta, whose government just the other day contracted out the manufacturing of cloth masks to Old Navy, is in Wal-Mart buying school supplies. Now I know that many families shop there, and I've shopped there too. That's not what this is about. What this is about is a government that is actively circumventing the bidding process and outsourcing labour to the US, instead of using Canadian made products. It's not as if there is a shortage of Canadian made masks, either:
Defund, Demoralise, Privatise
It's a familiar refrain that has been repeated over and over by labour groups and unions over decades in North America and across the globe: defund, demoralise, privatise. It almost always rings true, and this week we got a glimpse into a conversation that took place involving a lobby group representing orthopaedic surgeons in Alberta. It has "tentative support" from health minister Tyler Shandro, and if approved, would be the largest private health care facility in Alberta's history.
Now for those of you who have been paying attention, Tyler Shandro isn't exactly the most popular politician in Alberta right now. He's been faced with multiple calls to resign, along with AHS physicians voting 98% in favour of no-confidence in the health minister. Jason Kenney's response? Well, see for yourself.
Again, this is a familiar refrain and a common derailment tactic used by conservative governments across the country. Claim that they're doing everything they can, that there's no money, label any critics or dissenters "special interest groups", and deflect any and all attempts to enforce accountability by repeatedly standing by its cabinet members. On top of this, they dismiss the legitimacy of the criticism and the people who would dare to critique their policies.
But let's get back to what is on the horizon for Albertans. Like in Ontario and the rest of Canada, kids will be going back to school soon. And as in Ontario, Alberta has a big problem with class sizes. It certainly hasn't helped that Alberta's government has cut funding to the school system while at the same time mis-managing the provision of PPE, teachers' assistants and adequate numbers of masks for the students. When education critic Sarah Hoffman brought these concerns to the floor of the legislature, members of the UCP caucus LAUGHED AT HER. Don't believe me? Once again, I give you the receipts:
Now I know that political theatre is a fact of life in Canadian politics, as it has been in the Westminster system for centuries up until now. Politicians regularly engage in cross-talk, verbal jabs and outright mockery. The difference here is that we are in a pandemic situation, where no one is safe or immune from its exposure. Politicians of all stripes SHOULD have a vested interest in the long-term effects of COVID-19, as they're still relatively unknown up to this point. I should also remind anyone following this conversation of one other very important thing: When it comes to kids in schools, and kids in general, they don't listen to adults most of the time, even in the best of times. Can you imagine what it's going to be like for that high school teacher who's trying to get a group of unruly teenagers to keep their masks on in a crowded classroom of 30?
Listen To The Experts
If Canada is going to survive the inevitable second wave of the pandemic this fall and not slip back into a more severe lockdown of our public systems, we need to start listening to public health officials, and stop pitting citizens against one another. This starts with our elected politicians at the federal and provincial level. Instead of reserving their amenability to when it's politically convenient, our governments need to step back from their high horses and let these public servants do their job. And when it's appropriate, they need to empower those officials to provide the general public with ALL of the resources they need to keep themselves safe, whether it's PPE, physical distancing, or with the manpower to keep our public spaces clean and sanitized to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Our political leaders also need to assist in the fight against misinformation and gatherings of anti-mask protesters, who will only worsen the spread as they are flagrantly flouting mask rules and physical distancing bylaws. We have already seen outbreaks in the US after gatherings like these are taking place, and we don't need it to happen here in Canada.
In the meantime, politicians in Canada (and beyond) would do well to remember the collateral damage being caused by their callous disregard for protecting our most vulnerable citizens, as it's only a matter of time before people start giving up on the system and resort to desperate measures. We cannot afford to make any mistakes when it comes to this pandemic, and we certainly can't treat our fellow human beings as though they aren't worthy of protection.
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