Susanna Kelley (Moderator): Amidst a skyrocketing daily coronavirus case count the Premier has closed all schools across the province and moved them to online learning, joining schools in Toronto, Thunder Bay, Guelph area and Peel. This is a major upset for children, families and parents who work, but is it necessary given the number of hospitalizations and ICU patients threatening to overwhelm our health care system?  We asked Sarbjit Kaur, David Wills and Chris Loreto.

Sarbjit Kaur:

After an absurd amount of yo-yoing (where it seemed like the government position was changing by the hour and the Minister of Education and Premier Ford might not even be talking to each other) the province has made a decision.

It’s the right decision because at this point people are done with mock downs. They would rather have a complete shut down and take the pain than to continue to see alarming numbers every day of hospital admissions and overwhelmed ICUs.

People are frustrated that they are shut down while other areas are completely open. They are happy to collectively make an effort but when you feel like the overall plan is not even going to work and you were just being told to do same thing that won’t even be effective — it causes a lot of frustration.

As for the government, when you have doctors and public health officials slamming you every single day and parents afraid for the wellbeing of their children, what choice do you have?

David Wills:

We heard time and again that the government would spare no expense and do all it can to keep schools open and safe. But time and again the words were not backed up with action.

We are all communications professionals here, so let’s look at it through that lens. Confusion is just as bad as making mistakes. We hear one thing one day, something different the next, and without any explanation of the reason for the change.

Let’s be fair — a pandemic is uncharted water and we need to adjust quickly.

But we need something new to get kids back in school. We can vaccinate teachers and education workers as a start. Michigan did it — and they did it fast. We could have spent the last year improving ventilation. With weather getting warmer, we could move more activities outside.

But as Sarbjit said, we get the same reaction that did not work the last time. As one Conservative columnist writes, when your only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.

I think what parents want and deserve now is a plan — what has to happen for schools to safely reopen again? What else — what new — will the government do? And most importantly, the Minister needs to finally engage with teachers to make the best of this bad situation.

Chris Loreto:

I do want to start with a few facts. As the Chief Medical Officer of Health and numerous local Medical Officers of Health have stated, schools have been safe.

Ontario has the lowest case rates among provinces for youth under 20, outside Atlantic Canada.

The government is investing $1.6 billion to upgrade ventilation, support the hiring of 7,000 staff, and consistently ramping up testing and other health and safety measures.

The government is also accelerating the delivery of vaccines to education staff for all special education staff province-wide, and for education staff in priority neighborhoods in Toronto and Peel.

I agree that communication has been confusing to the general public. The situation seems to move hour to hour, day to day. But that is the environment in which we are operating.

We are not alone. BC, once the star student, is grappling with the vicious Brazilian strain of the virus. Even Michigan, where it has been noted they have vaccinated teachers, is witnessing case counts that rival or outmatch those of the first wave.

I agree we need a back-to-school plan. We need to prioritize teachers and staff for vaccinations.

What would help is more vaccine so we can get more needles into arms — we are in a race against an ever-evolving enemy, and no amount of forecasting or planning will resolve things in the absence of more vaccine in the country.

Sarbjit Kaur:

I agree. From a communications perspective. I think the most damaging thing to come out of this, for the government, is it really lays bare the complete chaos behind the scenes. Wildly divergent messages are coming out of the Ministry of Education, the Premier’s Office and advisors. It’s like they don’t even talk to each other! 

For the first time Doug Ford’s approval ratings for handling the pandemic are below 50%. There’s no sense anymore that there is a plan or any rhyme or reason to this pandemic response. For sure things are fast-moving and decisions have to be made actively — but there’s always a delayed, wait-until-the-last-possible-moment, reaction. Especially when there’s a weekend coming up. They only seem to do things when the opposition forces their hand.

Which is a victory for the opposition each time.

It’s true that many jurisdictions are still struggling. But when this government is so quick to lay blame — it has to accept it as well when things go wrong.

David Wills:

What I think people want to see is action and new ideas.

We have approximately two months of school left and no one knows if the government is thinking the shift to online is for the rest of the year or for a week or two. Everyone would appreciate a prediction — even if it is well qualified.

I’m no cheerleader of the federal Liberals by any means, but one thing I really appreciate is how they communicate the number of vaccines they anticipate for the coming weeks. It gives me something to look forward to, and gives me hope that my turn is coming. People want the same with schools.

Many of my colleagues are stuck right now — they can’t plan, they need to shift work hours and they have to adjust.

And teachers need to be able to plan. Teaching online is not remotely the same as teaching in a classroom. It is delivered differently, takes more time and is way harder. The government could make a major step forward simply by acknowledging that. It would send the right signal to parents as they are stressed out.

The other way to look at it is to identify ways to make the school system better permanently — such as ventilation or just adding windows that open. Give people something to look forward to and they will reward you with loyalty, even if it is not perfect.

Chris Loreto:

Realistically, when this Emergency Order comes to an end, we will be into May, and likely nowhere near where we want to be with vaccinations. To David’s point, maybe the government should very well move the rest of the year online to help people plan.

This third wave is seeing younger and relatively healthier people getting infected and hit hard. If I am a teacher in the classroom, I am nervous. If I am a parent, I am nervous about getting the virus and not being there for my family. The government made the right decision here.

Online learning isn’t great. It has been a struggle with my own kids. At home, they are safe. I prioritize their safety right now and the safety of my family.

We know the toll that this pandemic is having on mental health — including the mental health of our children. Maybe it is time to recognize that we should finish this school year online and double down on our focus to vaccinate — starting with those that are most vulnerable, our frontline workers, in the hot spots. And we work to start fresh in September, with most of us vaccinated, and getting back to some semblance of normal. For this I pray.

Chris Loreto is the 1st Vice President of the Ontario PC Party and previously served as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs in the Harris government. He is currently Principal at StrategyCorp.  David Wills is a Senior Vice President at Media Profile. He worked as NDP political staff at Queen’s Park and provides counsel to federal, provincial and municipal elected officials. Sarbjit Kaur has worked in Liberal politics for 20 years, including as Director of Communications to a cabinet minister in the McGuinty government. She is a former journalist and currently co -founder of KPW Communications.

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