Communists support the fight for a safe return to school

The Communist Party of Canada (Ontario) condemns the Ontario Conservative Government’s refusal to enact policies that would minimize the health risk to the two million students and hundreds of thousands of education workers returning to schools across the province this week and next. 

The Ontario government must provide the funding and direction necessary for school boards to be able to reduce class and cohort sizes and find additional public space for use by schools to allow for necessary physical distancing. Other demands put forward by teachers and education workers such as standards for ventilation in schools, clear health and safety standards from the Ministry of Education, mask requirements for children under age 10, better screening and more resources for bus transportation will also help to reduce COVID-19 infections in schools and across the province.

The corporate drive to re-open businesses with as little expenditure as possible on health measures is placing more workers in harm’s way in every sector of the economy, despite epidemiologists’ warnings that a second wave is around the corner. The lack of governmental financial and social support, and the phasing out of the limited supports that were available, means that millions of workers have little option but to return to work, if they are able to find it in the context of massive unemployment. Some office workers are able to work from home, but front-line workers, who more often have lower wages and are disproportionately racialized and gender oppressed, have either never stopped going to work or are being forced to return. The reopening of schools, especially elementary schools, is necessary to facilitate this for working families. The education of students and the working conditions of teachers and educational workers are clearly afterthoughts when it comes to the Ford government.

Since Doug Ford’s announcement of a return to in-person classes in early August, teachers, education workers and their unions have been clear on their demands to reduce class sizes to allow for physical distancing in overcrowded classrooms. Moreover, public health officials agree with this approach, including the Sick Kids report that the government is touting as their model for reopening schools. Despite all this, Doug Ford’s response has been to publicly attack teachers and their unions for speaking out and to block school boards’ efforts to reduce class sizes.

In fact, despite some parents being able to accommodate keeping students at home, in-person classes are being combined in order to maintain large class sizes. By doing so, the provincial government maintains their funding formulas which are mainly tied to the number of students in a given classroom.

In order to try and subdue growing criticism from teachers, parents and students, the Ford government announced $500 million in funding that was actually money from reserves that had already been committed to other areas. The federal government’s announcement of $2 billion for the country as a whole still has not been enough for the Ford government to mandate lower class sizes.

All this begs the question of why the Ontario government is so resistant to providing the funds necessary for a return to school which allows for smaller class sizes and physical distancing and other simple measures that would significantly reduce the risks. At a time when capitalist governments around the world are spending trillions to bail out the banks and keep stock prices high, a few billion for safe education pales in comparison.

The Ford government has not changed its spots since the beginning of the pandemic. This is the same government that tried to increase class sizes drastically last year which would have resulted in 25% fewer teaching jobs over a three year period. They tried to bring in four mandatory online courses per student which would have meant more layoffs and a further deterioration of the quality of education. Pandemic or no pandemic, they are committed to cutting funds to public education and introducing further privatization of education at all levels. Doug Ford is opposed to smaller class sizes, even as a temporary measure, because the capitalist class he represents is opposed to public education.

Just as COVID-19 underlined the massive damage done to the healthcare sector through decades of capitalist austerity this spring, the pandemic is now highlighting the real costs of the cuts to education this fall. Large class sizes, poor ventilation and deferred maintenance are all symptoms of the underlying problem, Ontario’s public education system has been starved. Students will continue to suffer until there is a new, needs-based funding formula to provide adequate and guaranteed funding, from provincial general revenues, to public schools and education programs.

As the capitalist economic crisis deepens, the banks and the corporations are bailed out, and working people are asked to pay for the crisis, we must remember that a fundamentally different approach is both possible and necessary. A massive expansion of public services, including education, health, housing and childcare can be an important pillar of job creation and part of a broader People’s Recovery.

We know from recent experience that it is possible to fend off this government. Education workers and their unions managed to build broad public support in their fight with the Ford government last year which resulted in the defeat of many of the government’s worst attacks. Students’ learning conditions, teachers’ working conditions, and the health of us all depends on broad unity in this current struggle for a safe return to school.