THUNDER BAY - Local members of provincial parliament say the decision to keep students learning at home is the result of a lack of planning by the Ford government to keep schools safe during the pandemic and the province-wide school closure is unfair to northern students.
On Monday, the provincial government announced that all publicly funded and private schools across Ontario would remain under virtual learning for an indefinite period of time, as new daily cases of COVID-19 continue to surge in parts of the province.
“The first thing I thought was it’s too bad we didn’t do the investment in getting things in place to make our schools safe,” said Thunder Bay – Atikokan MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell. “So smaller class sizes, barriers, prioritizing vaccines for education workers. If those had been in place, maybe we wouldn’t have had to close our schools.”
Premier Doug Ford said on Monday that bringing students back to the classroom after being in the community during the April break and into a congregate setting is a risk he is not willing to take.
The announcement on Monday came only days after the Minister of Education said students would be returning to the classroom. The Thunder Bay District Health Unit also recently announced that local school boards could return to in-class learning after the April break, as the number of cases in the district continues to decline.
Monteith-Farrell said that mixed messaging has been a source of frustration for parents.
“At one time we get an announcement and three days later we get an announcement that they are closing,” she said. “Families need to plan and that is frustrating for them.”
“People are frustrated and some are very angry because of that planning piece, not knowing what’s next. We still have a mixed bag of people who think it should open up and others who think it should be locked down.”
Thunder Bay – Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle said he has also heard from numerous parents who are frustrated by the decision and miscommunication.
“There are scores of parents concerned about their children who were looking forward to going back to school on April 19,” he said. “The turmoil going on in the provincial government is certainly a concern.”
But given the situation in the province, particularly the rising number of hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions, Monteith-Farrell said she understands the decision to close schools.
“I believe we need to look at the numbers we have in the province right now,” she said. “The variants are taking off and are far more contagious. We need to listen to the health experts and keeping our children safe is important.”
But Gravelle said if the province continued with regional approach, schools would be open in the north.
“There’s no question that the governments departure from the regional view of things and to a pan-provincial model has been unfair to many parts of the province, particularly northwestern Ontario,” he said. “If they were following the regional model, our schools could have been open and that would have been the best thing for students as well.”
There are also growing calls to vaccinate teachers, education workers, and childcare workers across the province in order to reopen schools safely.
NPD leader Andrea Horwath said the Ford government needs to vaccinate education workers, teachers, and childcare workers immediately, as well as implement safety measures in schools such as a class size cap and on-site school testing in order to salvage the rest of the school year.
“Doug Ford marched us right back into another classroom shutdown because he didn’t want to spend the money on education,” Horwath said.
“I believe our children’s safety is worth the investment. If I were premier, I’d be vaccinating teachers, education and child care workers now, and I’d be making urgent investments in a safe return to schools.”
Gravelle added his party has also called for a class-size cap of 15 students, as well as upgrades to ventilation systems in Ontario schools and vaccinating education workers and teachers.
“That will certainly go a far way for making sure we don’t keep having this happen again and again,” Gravelle said. “There is a tremendous amount of confusion caused to parents and children and it simply has to stop.”