Irvin Studin is president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, and editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief Magazine.
Let’s get the banalities out of the way immediately. Education is obviously an exclusive provincial legislative responsibility in Canada, and I am not calling for any constitutional change whatsoever in this regard.
But Canada’s postquarantine education crisis, which is driving peak hysteria as the fall approaches, is now of historic proportions. It touches every aspect of national life (present and future alike), from economic recovery to pandemic management and public health and well-being across the country. I am therefore calling for urgent national leadership, resources and pressure to help us master the most basic imperative of any civilized country: educating our children and young people.
Strange fact: Canada is the only major federation in the world – and indeed, one of the only countries in the world – without a national minister of education. The United States, India, Germany and Australia all have proper ministers of education.
In all of these federations, as in Canada, the constitutional lead on education lies with the states or provinces. And yet, all except Canada realize formally that education is so fundamental to the health and destiny of the country that there ought to be a designated point-person at the national level constantly worrying about education and, fundamentally, the quality of the graduates and human capital being formed in our schools, in each generation, in order to ensure the success and basic survival of the country.
While the specifics of the educational crisis differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across our vast country, the anxiety levels among Canadian parents, teachers and students are now universally high with respect to the mechanics and sustainability of the imminent return to school.
But Canada, having shut down schools for several consecutive months, now has multiple provincial and territorial systems of education that have varying manifestations of delayed or staggered schooling, “hybrid” schooling, online schooling, in-person schooling, home schooling and “pod” schooling.
Parents stuck at home teaching children cannot work properly (a massive national economic consideration), kids forcibly stuck in front of computer screens cannot interact with their peers (a national mental health consideration), while children in schools where frenzied COVID-19 preparations have displaced curricular delivery, excellence and extracurricular activities are being dealt a severely compromised pedagogical experience.
Another school shutdown this fall or in the new year will surely collapse some of the country’s school systems. Dozens of parallel systems – already in the works – will take hold. Flight to private schools will accelerate, thousands of additional privatized pods will sprout, online schooling will become permanent for many, while many children will, for lack of domestic stability, resources or parental capacity, simply not be properly educated. Full stop.
Such a state of educational disintegration in a country as rich and established as Canada would be nothing short of a national disgrace and calamity.
The Prime Minister should immediately appoint a temporary minister of education with an emergency mandate to work with the provinces and territories to right the country’s educational infrastructure with the greatest speed and seriousness of purpose. The appointment as such is a prerogative power and perfectly constitutional. No federal ministry of education need be created or legislated by statute. I am not calling for a vast federal educational infrastructure. But I am insisting on an acute federal strategic and policy interest in this unprecedented education crisis, including its intimate connections with Canada’s five other pandemic-related national crises: public health, economic, institutional, interprovincial unity and foreign affairs.
The new minister of education should immediately gather his or her provincial and territorial counterparts – with the Prime Minister and premiers ideally at the table – to map out Canada’s undeniable national priority and obligation: ensuring that our children return to school safely and permanently and, without exception, to an education that is the world’s best at readying them for their futures, the future of the country and the very difficult world of tomorrow.
The appointment of a new federal minister must coincide with a ramping up of regular, rolling mass testing of the entire Canadian population – including students and teachers – to constantly refine our statistics on COVID-19 infections and locations, to better drive down probabilities of outbreaks. Scenario planning must happen nationally and across provincial borders in preparation for inevitable outbreaks in schools here and there, to ensure proportionate responses that do not break the academic system, cripple the economy or cause social chaos in the society. Resources and calm, factual communications will be important, but hyperactivity and attention to detail from our leaders – in government, in the school boards and in the schools – will be key to minimizing coronavirus “theatre,” ritual and euphoria while ensuring the pith and substance of education are delivered professionally.
This is a national mission. It has manifest local leads, but the educational interest and urgency are nationwide. Let the new minister play an essential catalyzing role where none today exists. And then let this temporary ministerial position be retired – five years hence – when our educational systems have been restabilized and recalibrated for the very challenging decades ahead.
Globe health columnist André Picard and senior editor Nicole MacIntyre discuss the many issues surrounding sending kids back to school. André says moving forward isn't about there being no COVID-19 cases, but limiting their number and severity through distancing, smaller classes, masks and good hygiene.
The Globe and Mail
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.