It’s September, and Ontario’s schools are beginning to reopen. In the six months that schools have been closed, the Province has struggled with a pandemic that has hit low-income households the hardest. As we reopen schools and inch further forward in our post-COVID recovery, how can we ensure that the most vulnerable families are receiving the support they need?
In our Hunger Lives Here report on experiences of food bank clients during COVID-19, we learned about the challenges faced by food-insecure families in the spring when schools first closed down. Before the pandemic, one in four children among our respondent households were going hungry. During the pandemic, this increased to one in three.
In their surveys, food bank clients told us how hard it was to put food on the table and keep their children fed. They told us about wanting or needing to go back to work but not having any childcare, and about being unable to support their children with online school.
All parents are currently making tough decisions about whether, and how, to send their children back to in-person classes; however, the choices are particularly limited for families who are low-income or food-insecure. For many of these families, it is a choice between going to work and sending their children to school with all the health risks it may entail, or staying at home together and having everybody go hungry. For these families, it is especially critical that school reopening plans are safe, feasible, and equitable.
So what does Ontario’s school reopening plan look like? It includes new funding and health and safety guidelines to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at schools. It involves full time in-person classes for elementary students, hybrid in-person/online for most secondary school students, and the option to take classes completely online for families who want, and are able to.
The plan has gaps. Many have critiqued the large class sizes which will prevent physical distancing from being followed, the insufficient funding for ventilation improvements, and the insufficient time for school boards to prepare. In the short-term, strong leadership and adaptability from the Province and from school boards will be necessary to fill these gaps and keep students safe.
In the longer term, however, we have the opportunity to address the broader context which has made school reopening so risky in the first place. With the public’s attention on education, we can address the systemic underfunding of Ontario’s public education system, which produced the too-large classes and aging infrastructure we are now scrambling to fix.
More broadly, COVID-19 has put a magnifying glass on our society’s inequities and shortfalls, and we now have a unique opportunity to address the widespread poverty in our province. With greater supports to families in need, they would no longer have to choose between work, school, and hunger. This is the future we all deserve.