COVID-19 has revealed the systemic failures undermining our shared, public education system, as caused by years of government inaction, poor decision making, and withholding of funds.
When the pandemic struck last year our schools were unprepared, having endured two decades of a broken and outdated funding formula that left most boards, including the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), underfunded and struggling.
In 1998, the Harris government established Ontario’s education funding formula at approximately $2.50 per square foot per school to reduce education spending.
Today’s problems in our schools trace back to this disastrous, one-size-fits-all solution, including large class sizes, lack of supports for Special Education programs, inadequate resources for BIPOC and our most vulnerable students, and aging and crumbling buildings.
Province-wide, the school repair backlog has ballooned to $16.3 billion, and, in the TDSB, where the problem is acute, repairs are estimated at $4 billion.
Students in Toronto have been “shortchanged by the province for two decades,” says Economist Hugh Mackenzie in a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) report.
“The formula was designed not to support students but to force school boards to cut back on programs.”
This week, with schools closed and classes almost exclusively online, teachers, despite their expertise, are struggling to provide their students with the necessary learning environment because of these longstanding funding failures.
This is the second time the TDSB has moved classes almost fully online, and schools still lack the up-to-date technology and training for teachers to properly implement remote, synchronous learning.
The pandemic has been with us for a year, and the Ford government still hasn’t learned that the same old thinking from its austerity playbook leads only to failure.
To address COVID-19 in our schools and to implement functional remote learning, the Ford government needs to be proactive, not reactive.
In our schools, we need safety and stability, for our students, families, and communities. To achieve this, the Ford government must revisit the funding formula to ensure that there is appropriate funding for every student.
Right now, the Ford government is sitting on $12 billion in unspent COVID-19 reserve funds that could be used on safety and to enhance public education.
Also, instead of giving parents back their own $200, Ford should invest these funds in our schools, for lasting change that will provide greater stability for families.
The Ford government must take every action to prevent COVID-19 transmission and stop downplaying the risk in schools. When brick and mortar schools reopen, funding must be made available for smaller class sizes, so students and educators can adhere to the two metres of physical distancing mandated everywhere else in Ontario.
Immediate funds are also needed to address school repair backlogs, so that all classes have functioning windows and ventilation with HEPA filters, as well as to ensure appropriate PPE, sufficient cleaning staff, and more in-school nurses to assist with screenings and managing potential outbreaks.
Additionally, public health and school boards must ramp up asymptomatic testing to address invisible outbreaks. This testing is essential and cannot stop until COVID-19 has been eradicated.
In virtual schools, more teachers must be hired to stop the warehousing of students, and resources must be provided to ensure that teachers have the tools and training to do their job as professionals.
Lastly, the Ford government needs to listen to experts. Teachers and public health officials warned this government before schools reopened that its plan was underfunded and insufficient to protect our communities from COVID-19.
Doug Ford has repeatedly said that he will spare no expense when it comes to education. It’s time to prove it. The Ford government must take action and fix the education funding formula, so our schools have the resources to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment in which parents, students, and educators feel secure.
Jennifer Brown is the President of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto, the union local representing more than 11,000 elementary teachers (K-8) employed by the Toronto District School Board.