Parents across the country are faced with an impossible choice. After six months of lockdown the mental and physical health of children is starting to suffer. But due to underfunding, reopening the schools creates new dangers for students, staff, and families. Large class sizes and poor ventilation risk making schools the vector for the second wave of infection. All levels of government are prioritizing corporate profits over the welfare of the community. They cannot be allowed to gamble with people’s lives like this.
Ask any parent, and they will tell you how hard things have been during the lockdown. From the first period of stress over the unknown; to the battle against screen addiction, limited physical activity, and lack of socialization; to conflicts over the time and attention of parents working from home, and the struggle to find childcare for those forced to work outside the home, the kids really aren’t alright. Less than three percent of children are getting at least sixty minutes of physical activity each day. The overwhelming opinion of parents is that children need to go back to school. But provincial governments are exploiting the desire of parents to safeguard the welfare of their children in order to save money and increase exploitation and profits.
Everybody understands that there is a balance of risk and harm with reopening schools. During the pandemic, every step of reopening comes with real risks. The question is whether everything is being done to reduce those risks. The answer to this question has been a decisive “no”.
Despite having months to plan, every province has been in various degrees of chaos when announcing their back-to-school plan. Initially, the general guidelines seemed to be, “send the kids back and hope for the best!” Reopening restaurants, bars, and gyms appeared to be a far more important question for elected officials. This shows the real thought process behind school reopening. Child education and welfare is an entirely secondary consideration for these capitalist politicians. Instead, their prime motivation is the desire to free up parents to get back into the workforce. This way they can reduce the cost of public and private payments to parents looking after kids, while also increasing the labour pool to push down wages.
The provincial governments pushing for reopening also wanted to do so on the cheap. Initially, practically zero funds were released to reduce class sizes to mitigate risk. Class size has been shown to be a vital element in reducing infection. Recent studies, as well as experience from other countries, has shown how limiting class size, and therefore increasing physical distance in cramped facilities, makes all the difference. Doubling class size from 8 to 15, or 15 to 30, does not double the risk of an outbreak. Instead, risk increased by four or five times at each step. Countries like Israel and Germany, which had previously reduced their infection rate, found that reopening the schools was a significant factor in the second wave of the pandemic.
Politicians try to assuage concerns by repeating that children are not as badly affected by COVID-19 as older people. This may or may not be true. There is still much that is unknown about the long-term effects of the virus, which has exhibited some abnormal symptoms in young people. But the fact that children may be less likely to die from COVID-19 cannot be any comfort to the family of the 19 year old in Montreal who recently succumbed to infection. It is also no comfort to the thousands of teachers and school staff, many of whom are in their fifties and sixties, who are being forced to put themselves in harm’s way. While children may become less ill, studies have shown that they are perfectly capable of spreading the virus to teachers and their families.
The sanguin attitude of the ruling class towards sending workers into cramped schools may come from the fact that many of them have no intention of opening themselves up to the same risk. There are an increasing number of stories about the wealthy opting out of the public school system and instead paying tens of thousands for private schools with guaranteed small cohorts, or hiring private tutors. This option simply is not available to working class families. This also has the convenient side effect of bolstering private schooling – an ongoing project for the right wing who are aiming to defund public education.
Their contempt for working-class people was graphically shown by Ontario premier Doug Ford, who recently announced that the province would be spending $25 million to hire 200 new police, at the same time as he rejected a request from the Toronto school board to hire 300 new teachers at a cost of $20 million. The fact that Ford prioritized cops over children at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement has raised the slogan of defunding police just adds insult to injury. Such decisions are not just an example of class oppression, but also racial oppression. Recent studies have shown that poor and racialized neighbourhoods have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and the failure to fund reduced class sizes is sure to exacerbate these dynamics. This is what we mean when we say that capitalism kills.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a strong backlash amongst working-class families. Within days of announcing the Ontario back-to-school plan, thousands signed a petition calling for a class size cap of 15, as well as more cleaning staff, and funds to renovate ventilation systems. At the time of writing over 239,000 have signed this petition. This wave of public pressure has forced a series of partial retreats, which have also increased the chaos in the system. School boards are forced to announce new plans on an almost day-by-day basis, based on what higher levels of government allow them to do.
Attempting to divert the pressure, Ontario has allowed school boards to redirect $500 million of reserve funds to help deal with COVID-19. But this is a con. On the one hand, this amount is insufficient to cover the estimated $3 billion cost to reduce class sizes to 15, fix ventilation systems, and hire cleaners, etc. But on the other hand this is a false economy, as those reserve funds are needed for the long-term sustainability and maintenance of the education system. It is like a farmer who eats all his grain rather than saving some for replanting. Things will get even worse in the following years. The Toronto District School Board has used these funds to lower elementary class sizes to 20 in the most impoverished parts of the city, but this is insufficient. However, it does show that the government can be forced to move in response to a large enough mobilization.
In Quebec, the situation is even worse than Ontario. Even the most limited mitigation efforts, such as wearing masks, are not compulsory in classrooms. Also, students can only access online learning if they have a doctor’s note, as opposed to Ontario where online learning is open to all who choose it. High school class sizes will mostly remain unaltered with some older students sitting in rooms with 40 people. This is potentially a disaster as the data for reduced impact of the virus only applies to children under 10. It also compares terribly with Ontario where high school classes will be reduced to 15 by splitting education to half in-school and half online. In essence, returning to school in Quebec at full class size is compulsory.
While the Quebec government is doing nothing, and the Ontario government is doing too little, the Jason Kenney regime in Alberta is actively working to make things worse. The austerity-loving United Conservative government has plans to lay off 26,000 school support staff. In response to questions about sanitation, Kenney said he expected teachers to “tidy up” and fill the gap! Teachers are supposed to do someone else’s job, without training, while also trying to teach 30-plus students, prepare lesson plans, and avoid getting infected in a cramped classroom. The hypocrisy of Kenney is astounding, given that the Alberta legislature limits its sittings to 20 people in a far larger hall. If Kenney thinks it is so safe to sit in a small classroom with over 30 people then we suggest he lock himself in his office together with the rest of the UCP parliamentary caucus. But we’ll only open the door after two weeks to make sure no more innocent people are hurt by his reckless actions.
While plans for schooling change day-by-day, the plans for what happens before and after the school day are even worse. Some school bus drivers are reporting that they have 74 children set to be picked up when they only have 72 spaces on the bus! Physical distancing will be totally impossible in such a situation, putting the students, and especially the driver, at terrible risk. Calls from the union to the government went unanswered. To make things worse, regulations stipulate that a driver is not allowed to leave an unaccompanied minor alone at a stop. So an obviously sick child would still have to be bundled onto the bus, where they can infect everyone else.
There is still no coherent plan for how to mitigate outbreaks. Do you lock down the class after a student shows symptoms (which may just be the flu), or only after a positive test? If it is after a test this gives extra time for further spread, but if it is after symptoms the entire system could collapse. Does everyone on the child’s school bus go into lockdown too? And what about the parents of all these children in quarantine? Do they have to isolate also, and who pays their wages? The silence on these questions is deafening.
It is absolutely vital that parents, teachers, and students build a mass movement to overturn the reckless back-to-school plans. The Trudeau government has just announced $2 billion to be split amongst the provinces for back-to-school measures, but seeing that Ontario alone needs at least $3 billion this money will disappear like drops of water on a hot pan. The money exists, but provincial and federal governments are too busy giving corporate handouts to fund a safe back-to-school plan. The cost of reducing the risk of reopening is miniscule when compared with the hundreds of billions gifted to banks and corporations that are still paying dividends and bonuses. Their failure to fund safe schools also shows the stupidity and short-sightedness of the capitalists, as the cost of a school-triggered second wave of infection will vastly exceed the cost of making sure it doesn’t happen in the first place. But such is the logic of the failed system which produces for profit and not for need.
Ontario’s education unions, representing 190,000 workers, are appealing to workplace safety and the Labour Board to limit class sizes. In response Doug Ford attempted to distract from his failures by accusing unions of “playing politics” with back-to-school. The reality is that parents are 100 percent behind the teachers, and do not trust the Ford government that spent the last year trying to increase class sizes. However, it seems very unlikely that the unions will have any success at the Labour Board given the fact that every single COVID-related unsafe work stoppage was refused by the body.
In the likely event that the unions are unsuccessful at the Labour Board, the struggle must not stop. Infection rates are already ticking upward and we cannot allow the penny pinching of capitalist governments be the instigator of a second wave. Toronto Public Health has released a statement saying it opposes the current reopening plan. We cannot allow corporate bean counters who only care about making profits decide what is a healthy way to return to school.
Rights are fought for, not given, and education workers will have massive support if they use their right to refuse unsafe work. Only workers in education and health are able to determine how and when it is safe to go back. Teachers in Chicago, Indiana, and elsewhere have threatened strikes over reopening and have won important concessions. All levels of government are weak and can be forced to back down. With a resolute push we can achieve a safe reopening for our children. This is literally a life-or-death question.