Image: Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash

School is back in session, or will be soon, everywhere in Canada. But, as befits this vast and varied country, the rules, protocols and educational approaches form a patchwork quilt across the land. 

Some provinces, such as Ontario, offer the option of either organized online instruction or the in-person classroom kind. Others, such as Quebec, have made the traditional, in-person classroom compulsory for all, save a select few who have hard-to-get medical exemptions.

In some parts of the country, classes have as many students as in normal times. In others, there are reduced class sizes. 

Some jurisdictions require the wearing of masks, universally. Others only require some students and staff to wear masks, some of the time. 

Some school buses are operating at full capacity; others are at partial capacity; and others are not running at all.

Some schools and school boards have chosen to try outdoor education, in part, as a way of bringing students and teachers physically together while minimizing risk. A subset of those have imbued that outdoor approach with an Indigenous educational philosophy

The outdoor enthusiasts are all-too-rare exceptions, however. 

Many schools that have the appropriate space and resources to hold outdoor classes are, sadly, missing the opportunity. This reporter knows of one school in Ottawa whose property includes vast open fields and even a small forest — ideal for innovative outdoor teaching venues — but which, nonetheless, herds its students indoors as though the pandemic had changed nothing.

Slow off the mark

And so it goes. 

The overall impression one gets at the outset of the 2020-2021 school year is that educational authorities and provincial governments sleep-walked through the summer and have barely just awakened to the reality that this is a new school year like no other any of us can remember.

At the outset of the pandemic, last winter, all provinces and the federal government were closely aligned on the need for massive financial investment to support workers’ incomes and struggling businesses, especially small and medium-sized ones.

During the summer, the early stages of reopening in most provinces brought with them big regulatory challenges, but not financial ones. 

Provincial governments had to decide what kinds of new rules and restrictions they needed in order to make parks, beaches, offices, shopping malls, restaurants and bars safe. And they had to devise strategies to enforce those new regulations. 

What that phase of reopening did not entail was big commitments of new money. Opening schools, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. 

The tens of thousands of public schools in Canada are not privately owned businesses that governments merely regulate. They are publicly owned and controlled, and making them truly safe requires more than a set of new behavioural rules. 

To successfully and safely reopen their public schools, governments and school boards should have made major investments in order to radically reduce class sizes and implement creative pedagogical innovations such as outdoor education.

The majority of provincial governments have not, however, focused on innovation and new investments. Instead, their main focus is on their financial bottom lines. 

Alberta’s Jason Kenney was brutally honest about it. 

In response to the Alberta NDP opposition’s demand that class sizes be reduced to 15 per class, the premier countered that achieving such a target would mean hiring 13,000 new teachers and building 800 new schools. The cost, he claimed, would be $4 billion.

“That’s not a plan to reopen the school,” Kenney fumed. “That’s a plan to keep them shut.”

The United Conservative Party premier was reacting to the situation of one school district that had to delay its reopening because of a case of COVID-19. Kenney’s unapologetic explanation was that all along he has believed COVID-19 infections among school populations were inevitable. Nonetheless, Kenny does not believe that is a sufficient reason to keep any schools closed. 

Time to abolish the denominational system?

In Ontario, school has barely gotten underway, but already there are flare-ups of COVID-19. 

The Ottawa-area French language Catholic school board, which opened its schools earlier than the English and French public boards, has had to send 200 students home into isolation because Ottawa public health detected COVID-19 cases in five of its schools.

That’s not an auspicious start to the new school year. Ottawa Centre NDP member of provincial parliament (MPP) Joel Harden says the French Catholic board’s COVID-19 cases should be a wake-up call for the Doug Ford provincial government.

The Ontario government, Harden says, “needs to create smaller, safer classes so any case that gets into a school doesn’t spread like wildfire.”

“So far,” the MPP says, “the Ford government has thrown kids under the bus before it came to pick them up.”

As in Alberta, in Ontario the NDP is pushing for “training and hiring more teachers, lining up more temporary classroom spaces, and hiring more education workers, including custodians to disinfect schools constantly, and bus drivers to keep kids in smaller busing groups.”

Prior to the pandemic, the Ontario government was heading in exactly the opposite direction — cutting funding for schools, reducing the number of teachers and options for students, and increasing class sizes. Now, Harden argues, Ontario has to make a U-turn. 

COVID-19 has, in some ways, opened the door to outside-the-box thinking and policy options that once seemed radical, such as the notion of a universal, guaranteed income. In education — at least, in Ontario and a number of other provinces — there is one radical reform that no party, save the Greens, has ever adopted, but whose time might have come: getting rid of schools based on religious denomination.

In Ontario there are English and French public, or non-denominational, school boards, and English and French Catholic, or separate, school boards. That means four different kinds of educational administrative entities operating throughout the province. 

That is not only an anachronism, it is a huge and inefficient waste of money. 

Quebec, where the Catholic Church used to be all-powerful, got rid of its denominational, or confessional, system decades ago, in the 1990s, as did Newfoundland, which once had a multi-denominational system. 

Ontario politicians of all stripes hide behind the constitution when they refuse to even contemplate streamlining the education system, and saving hundreds of millions of dollars; but it is a false argument. 

Abolishing religiously-defined schools would require a constitutional amendment, but such an amendment only requires the accord of the province concerned and the federal government. 

Newfoundland and Quebec had no trouble getting the Liberal federal government of the 1990s to agree to their amendments. Ontario would have a right to expect similar cooperation from the current federal government, even in a minority Parliament. 

Such a reform would not be a panacea. Providing a high-quality education to all students, of all incomes and social backgrounds, during this time of pandemic, will require a much greater level of co-ordination, planning and investment than we are seeing today. 

But getting rid of the waste and duplication of the denominational system would free up a lot of money to spend on direct educational services rather than redundant administrative overhead. 

At this fraught time, when the futures of our children and grandchildren are at stake, we cannot afford to be wasting money on school board structures that might have made sense in the 19th century, but are archaic in the 21st.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter. 

Image: Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...