Doug Ford visits a school this September flanked by Education Minister Stephen Lecce and staffers. Image: Doug Ford/Twitter

In the spring of last year, Premier Doug Ford launched a surprise attack on public education by announcing a series of cuts, disguised as an increase in class sizes, that over a four-year period would have eliminated thousands of teaching positions, decimated programming at schools across the province, and forced students into e-learning courses that no one had asked for or wanted.

Parents and students balked, the education unions pushed back, and the government appeared to backtrack by reducing the scope of their cuts and watering down their roll-out of mandatory e-learning.

Or so we thought.

A year and a half later, likely thousands of teachers have been pulled from brick and mortar schools, in-school programming has been slashed, and virtual schools are not only set up in boards across the province, but teachers, once and still vociferously opposed to e-learning, are lining up to teach online.

For the Ford government, it’s mission accomplished. The pandemic has been a gift.

In a matter of months, COVID-19 has undermined trust in the public school system, created mass incentive for private school and homeschooling options, and achieved a grudging level of public acceptance for e-learning. The ground has now been cleared for the introduction of U.S.-style privatization reforms, such as vouchers and charter schools. The coming months will tell if this is, in fact, where the government is going.

Ford and his smooth-talking Education Minister Stephen Lecce accomplished all this by never wavering in their goals and by implementing a back-to-school plan so inadequately funded and haphazardly planned that almost a third of Toronto parents felt compelled to protect their kids by pulling them out of in-school learning. Applications to private schools have soared.

By taking only half measures to protect students and school staff, the Ford government let the pandemic do its work for them. Class sizes for elementary grades were kept large, masks for Grades 3 and under were made optional, few additional caretaking staff were hired, minimal funding for PPE or ventilation upgrades was provided, and back-to-school plans were unfurled so late into the summer that boards were left scrambling, and the system was thrown into chaos.

For political game-players hell bent on pushing ahead with a privatization agenda that the public doesn’t want, in disaster there is opportunity, and in crisis situations the public can be sufficiently beaten down to accept what it doesn’t want. This is how disaster capitalism operates.

While middle-class parents stretch their budgets to enrol their kids in private school or hire teachers for private “learning pods,” the poor, who are also disproportionately racialized, are left with the choice of either risking their lives and the lives of their families to return to in-person school, or to opt for virtual school option that many have neither the technology nor internet service to access adequately.

While people of conscience lament these widening inequalities, the pandemic has also allowed minister Lecce to convince comparatively privileged parents looking enviously at the speed with which private schools were able to “pivot” to online learning in the spring that “equity” was just a cynical term bandied about by teacher unions as an excuse not to do their jobs and teach “synchronously” online.

The government has a short window to consolidate its privatization goals. At some point, when the pandemic is over, demand for virtual learning will dry up. Parents and students will want what they’ve always wanted: well-funded, adequately staffed in-person schools that provide equity of access and a full range of programming.

But the pandemic will be with us long enough that if the Ford government stays focused, they can ensure that things like vouchers and charter schools are sufficiently entrenched by the time the pandemic is over and that public education in Ontario will be changed forever.

Jason Kunin is a Toronto teacher and writer.

Image: Doug Ford/Twitter