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'Safe learn or no return': York Region group issues ultimatum to Ford government

'If it's not safe for all, then we should not have anyone return to school,' says organizer of Aug. 24 Facebook live roundtable on safe reopening of schools
Concerned local parents Lindsay Nolan, Gared Johnson, and Roxana Caraiani are shown above at a July 29, 2020, demonstration at Newmarket-Aurora MPP Christine Elliott's office to demand more funding for a safe return to school in September. Greg King for NewmarketToday

York Region public education advocates determined to keep the pressure on Ontario’s premier and education minister for the safe reopening of schools present a Facebook live roundtable next Monday dubbed ‘Safe Learn Or No Return’.

Organized by grassroots group York Communities for Public Education and moderated by its co-chairperson Shameela Shakeel, the panellists include a Newmarket biostatistician and high school science department head, a high school student, teachers who work in elementary and secondary schools, along with Shakeel as a Newmarket parent of four children.

The roundtable comes at the same time as York public and Catholic school board officials work to finalize its safe return-to-school plans that critics say lacks the funding to ensure everyone’s safety, and local activists roll out the #SafeLearnOrNoReturn ultimatum to Premier Doug Ford’s government.

“Yes, #SafeLearnOrNoReturn should be our collective ultimatum,” Shakeel said. “York Communities for Public Education is taking a bold and courageous stand. We want all children and school staff to be safe and to stay healthy. We want smaller class sizes to ensure adequate physical distancing. The only way this will be managed by school boards and education workers is with adequate funding by the provincial government.”

“If it’s not safe for all, then we should not have anyone return to school,” said Shakeel.

“The Ford government is so concerned with the economy, but if we all decide to rise up, be courageous and say, no, we will not send our kids and school staff into unsafe environments, they will get the message pretty quickly,” she said.

The York public board announced this week that two-thirds of parents decided to send their elementary school children back to school in September for full-day in-person learning, while one third opted to keep their children at home for remote learning.

More secondary school students will return to an adapted model of in-person and online learning at 80 per cent, while the remaining 20 per cent will learn virtually at home.

Shakeel said many parents are hoping the government will provide more funding, and that school boards will “miraculously” manage to keep class sizes low and have classrooms that allow for physical distancing.

“And that our children will benefit from face-to-face learning and socializing with peers in a safe manner,” she said. “But if class sizes are too large as a direct result of underfunding during a pandemic, then many families will choose to keep their kids at home and switch to online learning or home schooling.”

Shakeel and many parents on a thousand-strong social media group also expressed anger about what they say is funding that falls far short to ensure a safe return to school, particularly as governments and public health officials prepare for a potential second wave of the coronavirus in the fall.

“Is anyone else really angry that the provincial government has not provided adequate funding to keep our kids and school staff safe, but Premier Doug Ford expects teachers (mainly women) to just step up’?” Shakeel said in reaction to a comment Ford made yesterday that teacher unions need to do their part as grocery clerks have done during the pandemic. “Oh, and then he gave $25 million for 200 new OPP officers (mainly men)?”

Shakeel called the funding for new OPP officers “next-level shameful and insulting”.

The #SafeLearnOrNoReturn initiative encourages families and education workers to demand a funding boost from the Ontario government that would make it possible to reduce elementary class sizes to allow for adequate physical distancing, add more school buses to allow students more space to spread out, and increase safety protocols.

The provincial government’s back-to-school plan was unveiled on July 30 and includes $309 million to be divided between Ontario’s 72 school districts for such things as up to 500 public health nurses to assist with health protocols, protective equipment and enhanced cleaning supplies, more teachers and custodial staff, school bus cleaning, extra supports for students with special needs, among other things.

But amid ongoing concerns, the Ontario government on Aug. 13 announced an additional $50 million for ventilation system upgrades, $18 million for remote learning supports, and will permit school boards to access its reserve funds to help reduce elementary class sizes to enhance physical distancing.

Meanwhile, the province is expected today to reveal its school-wide COVID outbreak protocols.

Riya Bhatla, who is co-chairperson of York Communities for Public Education, said that with just weeks before the start of the school year, “crossing our fingers and hoping for the best isn’t enough”.

“It’s about time our government and school boards recognize the implications of taking the pandemic too lightly,” said Bhatla, adding the group’s requests are reasonable. “We can’t ‘test’ inadequate plans on students, knowing that this will inevitably lead to more cases (of COVID) and negatively impact entire communities.”

“We want to ensure that students, educators, education workers, and families feel comfortable with the reopening of schools in September,” she said.

Roundtable panellist and Grade 12 student Visali Manimaran said she wants to be able to feel safe when she goes back to school to learn.

“Safe learning doesn’t just mean putting kids back in school and making sure they wash their hands,” said Manimaran. “I want to be able to learn, but with the precautions put in place where my peers, staff and myself are all safe.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce defended the government’s back-to-school plan in an Aug. 17 news conference, saying it leads the country in terms of investment and that parents in other provinces have asked that their governments emulate Ontario’s plan.

“...that includes public health nurses which, to be quite frank, is an important asset we can deploy to support symptoms and screening and testing in schools,” said Lecce. “The fact we have 500 of them we’re hiring in real-time, as well as asymptomatic testing of high school students, that’s going to be a real value added to ensure schools are safe.”

Lecce said funding has been provided to hire 1,300 custodians, along with a $100 million, one-time infusion this September to clean school buses and classrooms.

The York public and Catholic school boards have published their reopening plans, which their respective officials say may change as more details become available. 

The boards are finalizing such things as a staggered start to the school year, and how it may reduce the size of elementary classes.

Parents are advised to check the local school board websites for up-to-date information.

For more information of the York Region District School Board's reopening plans, visit here.

For more information of the York Catholic District School Board's reopening plans, visit here.

The #SafeLearnOrNoReturn Facebook live roundtable discussion is on Monday, Aug. 24 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the York Communities for Public Education Facebook page.

You are asked to register by Aug. 22 here.

The panellists include Ryan Imgrund, a Newmarket high school science teacher and biostatistician at Southlake Regional Health Centre who assesses COVID risk, local teachers Michael Oyston and Connie Goldman, high school student Visali Manimaran, and parent advocate Shameela Shakeel.

To read the Ontario government’s detailed school re-opening plan, visit here.