This is an excerpt from Ontario Majority, our brand new newsletter covering Ontario politics.

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The Ontario government finally unveiled its back-to-school plan last week. As I read through the details, I was shocked. The underfunded and half-baked plan was even less than I expected from our Premier.

And I was not alone. Teachers and their unions were shocked too. Parent groups were furious. Petitions have been launched and tens of thousands have signed on demanding that Ford backtrack from his plan. We launched one as well which you can sign here.

In this week’s issue, I’ll be digging into our government’s back-to-school plan. It is a disaster waiting to unfold. Even if you’re not a teacher or parent, you’ll want to know about this, because this plan risks throwing away all the sacrifices we’ve made these past several months.

An Unsafe September

Health experts have made it clear that smaller class sizes are a must for a safe re-opening of schools. It’s quite straightforward – you just can’t have classrooms packed with 30 students and expect that COVID-19 outbreaks won’t happen.

Except that is exactly what Doug Ford plan entails for most Ontario students come September. Kids from Kindergarten to Grade 8 will be returning to regular full-sized classes. Thanks to Doug Ford’s education cuts, that could mean classes as large as 35 kids.

Imagine that many kids in cramped classrooms, where physical distancing will be next to impossible. Moreover, Ontario’s schools are infamous for having poor ventilation.  No wonder Premier Ford is responding to reporters’ questions by saying his government will “move forward and pray to god” that kids are safe.

Let’s Crunch the Numbers.

Teacher unions had estimated that a safe school re-opening would cost around $3 billion. Not in my wildest dreams did I expect Doug Ford to cough up that much. But when his plan came out, revealing only $309 million in new funding for re-opening schools, I could not believe it.

This is the Premier who spent $231 million to cancel renewable energy projects like it was nothing. But during a global pandemic, $309 million is all he’s willing to spend to make sure students, teachers, and parents are safe? That’s less than a dollar a day per student.

According to a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) Trustee, $250 million is what it would cost to reduce class sizes for elementary schools. She says the Ford government knows this but chose to go ahead with full-sized classes.

Instead, Ford’s government left a fund of $30 million available to school boards for new teacher hires to help reduce class sizes. That’s 346 new teaching positions for the over 2 million students in Ontario.

Even with the new funding for supplies, cleaning and nurses, the numbers don’t measure up. The plan leaves $50 million for 500 public health nurses. There are nearly 5,000 public schools in Ontario. One parent’s group estimates that this funding will allow nurses to visit each school a mere two times a month.

Then there is the $50 million for new custodians. The province’s largest school board, TDSB, will be getting almost $6 million of that. There are some 600 schools in the TDSB. I doubt any of them will be able to find a custodian willing to work for $10,000 a year.

The entire plan is underfunded, but this is especially true for elementary schools that need money to lower class sizes. Premier Ford says the cost isn’t the issue, and that “if it were up to us, we’d have 5 kids in the classroom.”

Then what’s the hold up? The Progressive Conservatives have a majority government with emergency powers and can do whatever they desire. It really is up to them. It sure as hell isn’t public health experts advocating for 30-student class sizes – no one is buying that.

“Let’s see how it goes.” That’s the approach the Ford government seems to be taking when it comes to re-opening schools. The thing is we have seen how it will go. The Ontario government has had months to plan a return to school and the international examples of re-openings going awry are plenty.

In Israel, schools reopened with full-class sizes. They became the site of super spreader events. COVID-19 was transmitted from students to their families and then to the broader community. Israel went from 100 cases a day to 1,500 cases daily.

Meanwhile, in Denmark and Germany, where class sizes have been capped at a dozen or less, school re-openings have been rather safe. The fewer students in a class, the less social contact and less risk of COVID-19 being transmitted.

We don’t need to “see how it goes.” We didn’t sacrifice months cooped up inside just to risk it in a game of chance. Moreover, there is no reason why the safety of students, their families, and teachers should be left up to chance.

Making sure school re-openings are as safe as possible should not be a partisan issue. It definitely should not be a matter of finding savings and cutting corners. Ensuring that our province’s back-to-school plan is as safe as possible is critical to our ongoing fight against COVID-19.

Premier Ford says he’s going to “pray to god” that kids are safe. But we don’t need his thoughts and prayers, we need a Premier who’s willing to put the lives of children, their families, and teachers ahead of his obsession with austerity- we need a Premier who will do whatever it takes to keep everyone safe. 

Tell us what you think!

Every week we’ll be including a question for you. We want to hear about your thoughts on the issues we’re discussing. The top responses will then be included in next week’s newsletter.

POLL: Do you think Ontario should reduce class sizes when re-opening schools despite the cost?

While you weren’t looking.

The over-looked news of the week.

  • New data from Toronto shows that the COVID-19 lockdowns were much more effective for rich neighbourhoods, but did little for low-income neighbourhoods. Wealthier Torontonians had the option of working from home, whereas many essential and frontline workers live in less well-off communities. The data also showed that COVID-19 hit Toronto’s minority communities much harder – with people of colour making up 83% of the city’s reported cases. 
  • A Niagara Falls man has been charged after scrapping off social distancing markers in a Shopper’s Drug Mart store. The man, who also refused to wear a mask, says COVID-19 protection measures are really just a “psychology of fear.”
  • The investigation into the 2016 death of a mentally ill Ontario inmate culminated this week. Soleiman Faqiri struggled with schizophrenia and was arrested in an episode. He was found dead days later in his cell after an encounter with guards that left 50 signs of blunt impact

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