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Billions needed for safe return to school, not 7 cents a day, Newmarket advocates say

#SafeSeptember comes to Health Minister Christine Elliott's office

The more than a dozen people who participated in a provincewide day of action this afternoon at Newmarket-Aurora MPP Christine Elliott’s office all want the same thing: a safe return to school in September for students, teachers and education staff, and the funding to make it happen.

“We need an injection of billions of dollars in funding and the government seems to find the money for other things. So, they need to find the money to make this work so our kids can be safe and the staff can be safe,” said Newmarket parent Shameela Shakeel, who helped organize the local July 29 demonstration on behalf of the Ontario Parent Action Network and Ontario Families for Public Education. 

Nearly 1,000 families, educators, and labour activists demonstrated at 114 MPPs offices across Ontario today, bringing the message that the Ford government must fully fund a safe return to school in fall 2020.

The campaign dubbed #SafeSeptember rejects the province’s recent offer of seven cents a day per student for protection measures when school resumes during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Instead, education advocates say that $8.25 per student, per day, or an additional $3.2 billion is necessary to keep everyone safe.

“We need our kids to be back in school with safety measures in place, more staffing, more custodians, and more teachers to make this work,” Shakeel said, adding that many parents are concerned and anxious about what plans will be in place when their children go back to school. “And it can be done. The government just needs to put their mind to it and figure out a way to do it with more funding.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce are expected to announce the government’s school reopening plans tomorrow, July 30.

As a parent, Shakeel said her biggest concern is class size.

“If they’re going to keep class sizes at 30 or 35 kids even in high school, I think there’s a higher likelihood of kids and staff getting COVID-19, and that’s not what we want, obviously,” she said, adding that ideally, class sizes during the pandemic should be capped at 15 students.

Shakeel has three children who are all attending various levels of education, including elementary, high school, and university this fall. 

“Even for high school, it’s easy to say they can do a hybrid model (online and in-class learning), but that doesn’t work for all kids and not all courses,” she said. “We need kids to engage in athletics, hands-on activities, and apprenticeship-type courses. E-learning is not for everybody, so even a hybrid model is not ideal for most kids. We’ve learned that. It was a disaster for my youngest one, and for kids with special needs, it just doesn’t work.”

At least two Newmarket teachers who attended today’s demonstration told NewmarketToday that if class sizes aren’t significantly reduced in September, physical distancing will be a challenge.

In addition, there are not enough hand-washing stations to properly practise good hand hygiene, said Huron Heights Secondary School teacher Krystyne Carruthers.

On the subject of cleanliness, Carruthers said there’s a need to hire more janitorial staff to handle sanitization of the school facilities.

“Last year, the floor in my classroom was cleaned once in a year-and-a-half,” said Carruthers.

Other teachers and parents noted that they or their various associations had not been consulted by the provincial government as it works to formulate a plan to safely reopen schools.

Parent Shakeel said it’s key that government officials consult with frontline teachers and union workers “who actually know what it’s like to be in a classroom setting”. 

“Consultation hasn’t been happening from what I’m hearing, and I believe that needs to change,” she said.

Labour activist Jon Aston said the COVID-19-related school funding offered up by the Ford government is “barely enough to buy two disinfectant wipes a day. 

“Seven cents per student, that’s it? It’s not enough,” Aston said. “We need much more, we need smaller class sizes, repurposing of spaces in the schools, more janitorial staff to clean the facilities, we need more education workers, and personal protective equipment.”

“On March 14, there were 103 cases in total in Ontario when we closed the schools,” said Aston. “On July 28, the province reported 111 new cases, and 100-odd new cases every day.” 

“We already know the Ford government is no friend of public education, they’ve been proving that for the last couple of years,” he said. “I truly hope Ford and Stephen Lecce’s reopening plan  is a good plan, but based on experience watching this government operate in the last few years, I don’t trust them. They say one thing and they do another.”

In a social media post on July 27, Education Minister Lecce said “the government is preparing for the safe start of school and ensuring our plan prioritizes the well-being of students, staff and families”.

Lecce expressed gratitude to SickKids hospital and Dr. Ronald Cohn for leading a collaboration with other Ontario hospitals on recommending safety measures for the province’s schools.

The experts agree that bringing children and youth back to school for in-person, full-time learning, with appropriate risk-mitigation strategies to ensure everyone’s safety, is the ultimate goal.

To read the SickKids-led group of experts latest guidance for school reopening released today, July 29, visit here.


Kim Champion

About the Author: Kim Champion

Kim Champion is a veteran journalist and editor who covers Newmarket and issues that impact York Region.
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