Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, a former communications aide to Stephen Harper, is a rookie MPP marked for big things, and the proverbial boiling frog.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been so full of wall-to-wall crises and Canadians have been so supportive of their leaders that Mr. Lecce probably figures Ontario’s plan to have kids go back to school two days a week in September will raise parents’ grumbles, but eventually be accepted.
Like the frog in the pot, he doesn’t seem to be aware that the temperature is gradually getting hotter.
But here’s betting that sometime this fall, the frustrations of parents will start to boil. Mr. Lecce’s political plans might get cooked. Ontario Premier Doug Ford is in the hot tub, too.
Across the country, politicians are in the same danger of seeing their newly-expanded approval ratings start to deflate, too. They warned their voters to get ready for a new normal, but haven’t delivered on some of the first steps. We will have to work around COVID-19 for months or years until a vaccine is developed, but after months of lockdown, many jurisdictions haven’t got their heads around the fundamentals.
The most obvious example is child care and schools. Mr. Lecce’s plan leaves parents scrambling to take care of their kids three days a week. In many provinces, daycares are reopening at 50 per cent capacity, so many preschoolers will be at home, too.
But there are a number of other key steps to re-opening.
The federal government has offered provinces a $14-billion funding package for a group of things including child care, transit that’s less susceptible to spreading the virus, testing and tracing and so on. Talks have been taking place for two or three weeks. Both sides would be wise to make a deal fast, and get on with it.
Canadians may be enjoying summer patios now, but voters will feel cooler this fall if they see governments haven’t prepared for a new normal. The approval ratings for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and nearly every premier have risen during the pandemic, as Canadians were generally grateful for leadership in a crisis and willing to overlook mistakes. But that goodwill is going to compete with frustrations if there isn’t a next step.
Having elementary-school kids in class five days a week is basic table stakes for re-opening the economy. Child care is a necessity if you want an available labour force and higher employment, productivity, and economic activity. A lack of child care disproportionately hurts work opportunities for women already disproportionately affected by the pandemic. That’s bad for equity and the economy.
But provinces have a variety of plans for re-opening schools. Quebec re-opened schools, British Columbia phased in classes, and Ontario isn’t going to fully re-open even in September. Nova Scotia’s government is hoping to re-open in the fall, but hasn’t been clear about what it will do and how. Most provinces haven’t got many answers for the shortage of child care, and some don’t seem to think there’s much to be done about it.
You don’t have to look too far to see the frustrations. Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a consultant on gender and health issues, has been doing interviews, writing op-eds and gaining a following on Twitter for her call for more ambition from the provincial government to open new spaces for classes and find more teachers and just do what it takes to get schools open. But it is also a pretty common subject over the back fence and on the phone.
It’s no secret that a lot of people think their kids are suffering. The CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Alex Munter, called for prioritizing getting kids back to school five days a week because there are signs that their mental health is being affected by being stuck at home instead of being in class and with classmates. E-schooling doesn’t work well for a lot of kids. Paul Wozney, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, had a simple assessment of how remote learning went last spring: “It was a disaster.”
Mr. Wozney noted in an interview that it is complicated to figure out how to get all kids back to school with safeguards like physical distancing. And it will take money.
But at least premiers can feel free to demand money from Ottawa for eight months of emergency child care and schooling – Justin Trudeau would not dare refuse. The voters expect them to sort out the complications. The frustrations, especially for parents, are bubbling up.
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