Ontario’s Back to School plan needed further collaboration for greater confidence

It’s funny how a time of year can invoke a feeling.

I don’t recall a time where I was waking up on the first school day of the year and didn’t have a familiar feeling of nervous energy. Even before starting my family, I would be commuting to my job in Belleville and see a school bus for the first time in months and just naturally smile and think back to all those early September mornings as I waited for Donnie Ostrander to show up in his yellow limousine to cart my sister and I triumphantly back for another year at Athol Central School.

But there will be a new kind of nervousness on September 3 when Prince Edward County’s elementary and secondary students climb aboard a school bus and head back to class after the longest educational layoff since the start of one room school houses. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a mental meat grinder for everyone and that’s sure to escalate when learning recommences. At least back in 1918, there wasn’t social media and 24 hour news cycles to invoke constant fear and anxiety amongst the population.

In Prince Edward County, we seem to be careening through the summer of 2020 unscathed. By hook or by crook, our island has yet to register a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 since Hastings and Prince Edward Public Health started divulging where those with confirmed cases reside inside the catchment area. Not bad for the transient tourist no-man’s land between Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.

If the case load in Quinte remains low, I have full confidence that my children and grandchildren will be able to attend PECI this fall without a heightened risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. Every young person I see seems to be chomping at the bit to get back to class, a somewhat rare occurence compared to other years.

But there’s still reservation from your humble scribe regarding Minister of Education Stephen Leece’s plan for students to return this fall and it has more to do with the lack of direction, funds and protocols to the 72 Boards of Education in Ontario.

First of all, while there have been established guidelines and rules for the general public concerning social distancing and the wearing of masks for some time, Ontario’s Return to School plan seems to be an ever-changing set of parameters with fluctuations after school boards have cried foul over the original directions.

Most recently, the Ministry relented Tuesday and said school boards would be able to stagger their start dates up to two weeks in order meet what was being proposed by the province. We understand that the COVID-19 landscape is contestantly shifting but these regular recalculations make it seem like the Minister of Education decided he could cram for the coronavirus exam in the last few weeks of summer instead of making proper preparations back in May in consultation with school board officials and education leaders.

Secondly, there’s been a lack of communication and direction from the Ministry of Education on the roll out of online learning in the instances where parents don’t feel comfortable sending their children to school. School boards are flummoxed by what has been sent their way from the Ministry regarding virtual classroom learning.

By the way, a recent National Post poll indicates nearly four out of ten parents do not want their children to return to physical learning in September and three quarters of those polled would prefer Health Minister Christine Elliot to be overseeing the provincial return to school plan. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Lecce or his plan.

Finally, what exactly are we asking of teaching and non-teaching school staff in this COVID-19 reality?

As mentioned, with community rates of COVID-19 low, the exposure potential locally is minimal. But what of a second wave? What if an area in the Quinte region becomes a hot spot? At that point, the risk to staff inside our schools-with the diminished and lax coronavirus standards when compared to other public spaces in Ontario- will grow exponentially. It’s understood that by their very nature and recent history the Ministry and education labour groups are at odds with one another. But considering they’re risking not only their health but the health of their immediate and extended families, teacher and non-teaching staff input should have been a part of the development of any plan instituted by the province.

While that collaborative plan might have cost taxpayers more, the nervousness and anxiety felt by everyone on the first day of school in 2020 would be lessened greatly.

-Jason Parks

PICTURING OUR COMMUNITY

SPARKLING DONATION – The Bloomfield GEMS club, a group for young girls Grades 2 to 7 who actively and enthusiastically express their love for God and others and meet at the Bethany Christian Reformed Church in Bloomfield recently donated $600 to the Prince Edward County Memorial Hospital Foundation for priority medical equipment. Pictured at the donation are (From Left) Group leader Carrie Koopmans, Foundation Senior Development Officer Briar Boyce and Foundation Executive Director Shannon Coull. (Photo by Angela Prinzen)