photograph of empty desks in a classroom
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The call for “Schools Before Bars”

Victoria Marshall
3 weeks ago

As provinces start relaxing their COVID-19 restrictions, the economy is “reopening.” Movie theatres, gyms and bars are beginning to welcome customers back, and have had government supporting safer re-openings. But what does this say about our governments’ priorities? 

While you may be able to get a pedicure in Ontario and enjoy a cold beer inside a bar in Quebec, parents and children across the country are still waiting to be assured that there can be a safe return to schools this fall. Without clear information about whether schools will be open this fall, and what measures will be taken to protect children and teachers, some parents on social media are calling on their provincial governments to put #SchoolsBeforeBars.  

In Quebec, the CBC reports, “There are widespread concerns – not just in Quebec but across North America – that elected officials have jeopardized the return of children to classrooms this fall by seeking to salvage a nightlife in the summer.” After so much collective sacrifice, and months spent working to “flatten the curve,” will the aggressive reopening of indoor dining, gyms and theatres lead to increased infection? Are bars and nightclubs being prioritized over public services like schools and childhood education? 

This is another example of the pandemic exacerbating existing cracks in our social programs. The lack of investment in child care and education is not a new problem. Child care fees are unaffordable in most Canadian cities and education is one of the first places governments look to cut. In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney ramped up his education cuts during the pandemic. In the first months of Premier Doug Ford’s mandate in Ontario, he distracted from his government’s planned education cuts with "buck-a-beer" announcements. So, we can't be surprised when governments that have made deep cuts to education prioritize opening bars and nightclubs.  

Women impacted most 

In a recent Globe and Mail opinion piece, Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a consultant specializing in gender equality and health, wrote about how the failure to prioritize education impacts women hardest. “Women have faced the brunt of this pandemic, accounting for most of our frontline and health care workers. Women have also represented the majority of pandemic layoffs and have returned to work at half the rate of men,” she said.  

Child care and education are necessary for an economic recovery. With this stage of economic reopening, many parents are already making difficult choices: how can a parent return to their job in a restaurant, gym or movie theatre without safe and reliable child care and schooling?  

Dobson-Hughes adds: “Parents cannot leave children home alone, which will force those who can’t afford alternative arrangements to drop out of the workforce. A loss of household income will devastate many families, especially single parents, and set back women’s equality by years. Our inability to reopen schools will push families into poverty, slowing economic recovery, increasing demand on government assistance and deepening inequality.” 

In COVID-19, we are all making tough choices and a lot of sacrifices. Canada’s economic recovery needs to be a just recovery that prioritizes people’s health and well-being first, without exceptions, and includes families, children and working women.  

To reopen schools safely, education unions are calling for investments in health and safety, and clear, provincial guidelines. The Alberta Teachers’ Association conducted an in-depth survey of their members to help inform a safe return to school in Alberta. Teachers are stressing the need for school safety including PPE, smaller class sizes to allow for physical distancing, and ensuring schools are clean with enough maintenance workers to keep a high standard of cleanliness throughout the school day.  

Common standards needed 

These calls are echoed in Ontario, where many parts of the province just entered a new phase of reopening. “Every classroom, every cafeteria, every office and common area in Ontario should be cleaned the same way and to the same standards. Every school should have enough EAs so they can be assigned to one classroom and don’t have to move from room-to-room to assist students. Every school should have the same protocols for contact tracing, so that in the event of a COVID outbreak, administrative staff can all follow the same proven procedures across the province,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents 55,000 education workers. 

Schools and education are vital public services that must be prioritized — even if that means slowing down on reopening bars and nightclubs. Governments across the country must be willing to invest to ensure schools are safe to reopen this September.  

As Globe and Mail Health Reporter André Picard said, “Here in Canada, we’ve been vigilant for months and it’s paid off. It would be a shame to see that success swallowed up by a lust for a few mojitos, especially as Ontario has just announced that bars in 24 out of its 34 regions can reopen later this week. So let’s keep the bars closed – at least the indoor ones – and concentrate our efforts on something important, like getting kids back in the classroom safely. The dance floor can wait.” 

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