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$1.6 Billion To Be Cut From Ontario Education: Why Now?

I am a mom of two awesome children who teach me more than I ever thought possible. I love writing, exercise, movies, and LGBT advocacy.

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On an apparently "secret" memo dated February 26, 2021, Ontario deputy education minister Nancy Naylor made clear to ministry officials and school board treasurers that significant cuts were on the horizon to the education system. Before I get into these cuts, let's address the first issue: the fact that this memo was supposedly secret. If the Ontario government is putting out secret memos that are magically getting leaked to the public, they either have a huge leak in their system that they were unaware of or they are deliberately feeding the information to the press. For the record, I would think that of any organization, not just a conservative government, if a memo they claimed was secret somehow made its way to the public.

Anyhow, in the memo, Naylor credits education workers and school boards with having taken "extraordinary steps" to effectively keep schools running during the pandemic. She goes on to claim that "These steps were possible by the government making available over $1.6 billion in temporary resources to support the safe reopening of schools, with a plan that was designed in consultation with medical authorities in the province. These resources have allowed school boards to hire over 7,000 one-time additional staff for this school year including principals and vice-principals, teachers, educational assistants, mental health workers, early childhood educators, professional/paraprofessional staff, custodians and other staff that the boards required to meet their needs and the robust health and safety guidance issued by the Ministry."

She goes on to say that schools should take a "cautious approach" when looking at issues like hiring for the 2021-2022 school year, which appears to be further emphasizing her point that the $1.6 billion the Ontario government supposedly put into schools is going to disappear.

I work in a high school that I dearly love. In retrospect, we've been relatively fortunate in that we have had one publicized COVID outbreak (an outbreak has been considered to be two cases with an in-school connection) and I believe a total of about eight or nine cases. Our population is somewhere around 1600 students, so when you're looking at those numbers, eight or nine cases isn't terrible, though I'd have preferred it if no one had dealt with COVID at all. However, Naylor's reference to "robust health and safety guidance" in schools is laughable.

I am told to wear a medical-grade mask issued by the board and either a plastic face shield or goggles. I have wipes for equipment I might use, and there are two bottles of sanitizer in the classroom I share with another teacher, who teaches in the room the week opposite my teaching week this quadmester. In taking attendance, we are to ask students if they have done the self-screening for COVID-19, and if they say they haven't, we are to send them to do the screening, which is available online. Granted, we have now been told if a student has even one symptom associated with COVID-19, we are to send them home and they are not to return without a negative COVID test, which is an improvement over previous instructions, but how is any of this robust? Was that worth even part of the $1.6 billion?

Let's also be mindful that part of that $1.6 billion Naylor references is over $700 million in funding from the federal government. I'm still not clear where that money even went, though theories abound that the Ontario government is sitting on as much of it as they humanly can for the election that's coming in 2022.

Also, it's quite probable that mental health workers, who have been increasingly critical in their work with students particularly since the pandemic began, will soon see their positions on the chopping block. I'm dealing with students who are coping with a range of mental health conditions that have only worsened because of the pandemic, and while teachers are great at front-line defense in helping students who are struggling, we are by no means specialists in mental health conditions, which means there need to be individuals like mental health workers to appropriately support these students as they pursue their education.

I'd also question where all the additional staff are that the government says it gave funding for. I'd hazard a guess and say that the nurses the government said it was hiring were like unicorns; nice to have and magical creatures, but almost impossible to find in real life. I don't know about any extra teachers or administration, but I would bet that the 40,000 shortfall in students that the government says occurred is not a true shortfall, but a consequence of students moving to online learning for a range of reasons associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. These students are not nonexistent in schools, but rather, attending virtual learning, and while they're learning from home, they are still very much a part of the school they're attached to.

I recognize that with all the debt that the government has incurred as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic ways have to be found to pay back this money. For whatever reason, governments seem to look at education and health for ways to cut and that's almost consistently the case. It's not right and it's almost certainly not fair, but that does appear to be what happens.

Perhaps the government should look at areas of waste, such as the Education Quality and Assessment Office, which is worth $50 million or more on its own. Perhaps the government should also consider other areas where money has been spent out of hand instead of looking at two fields that are critical to individual success - education and health - in order to have a society that thrives following this pandemic instead of a society that is blind to a government that appears to care very little for the success of the people within it.

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