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NDP leader says back-to-school plan “not good enough”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was in Oshawa Monday to advocate for safer, smaller class sizes for the return to school in September. She was joined by local NDP MPP Jennifer French, and Gabrielle Edey (far left). Edey, a teacher and mom of two, shared her concerns about having to send her children to school with the current health and safety measures. (Photo by Chris Jones)

By Courtney Bachar/The Oshawa Express/LJI Reporter

NDP leader Andrea Horwath is speaking out on behalf of parents and educators to advocate for smaller, safer class sizes.

Horwath was joined in Oshawa on Monday by local NDP MPP Jennifer French and local parents to voice their concern for the back-to-school plan and what they call the inadequate measures the province has taken to keep children and teachers safe from COVID-19.

“It’s really clear that [Ontario Premier] Mr. [Doug] Ford’s plan is not a plan that is one that sits comfortably with educators, with parents, with public health, and other experts in the health field,” says Horwath.

“For some time parents have been doing the super-human juggling act, looking after little ones at home and supporting school aged kids with their distance learning, and many of them are working at home as well themselves. It’s been a tough go, but they’ve done a really, really great job,” she continues, noting all anybody wanted to make sure is that when September came kids could go back to school five days a week and they could go back to school safely.

Oshawa resident Kristy Micklewright, a single parent to a five-year-old daughter heading into Senior Kindergarten in September, says her daughter and the community deserves better than the return-to-school plan that has been laid out.

“I want my daughter to return to a school so she sees the faces of her friends in real life, and so she can be learning from great educators,” says Micklewright, noting when she read the directives parents were emailed at the end of July, she was left “startled” that her daughter and peers would be receiving the least amount of measures to protect them against contracting and spreading the virus.

“As it stands right now, her Kindergarten class will be underequipped for proper COVID-19 protocols and there’s one week before school starts,” she continues.

With one week before school starts, Mickleright says she still doesn’t know how many students will be in her daughter’s class, what the classroom will look like in terms of shared resources and surfaces, how a play-based model of education will be carried out while keeping COVID-19 hygiene protocols in place, what lunchtime and outdoor play will look like, or how to ensure her five-year-old will be able to properly wear, change and dispose of masks properly.

“These are little children and they’re not equipped to self-regulate their own, complicated hygiene practices on their own,” she says.

Mickleright says she expected to see an innovative plan with smart ideas that put value on the safety of children, but instead got one that made subtle changes that came in with no time to spare.

“It’s frightening and it feels like a gamble and these are not feelings I want to associate with my daughter’s wellbeing or education,” she says.

Oshawa resident Gabrielle Edey, a Kindergarten teacher and mom of two, echoes Mickleright’s concerns, noting she doesn’t want to have to choose between in-school education and the safety of her own children.

“As a Kindergarten teacher, I want to be able to offer your children a safe learning environment. Instead, I’ve been given a last-minute plan which is experimenting with the health of our kids,” she says.

She notes she’s faced with no choice but to send her children back to school into a classroom that is at its cap, which will make it impossible for children and teachers to maintain health and safety protocols.

“Kids are not careless, kids are carefree,” she says. “This is why it will be impossible to follow infection control standards and it is exponentially worse because our students will not be required to wear a mask.”

Edey explains a Kindergarten classroom is all about sharing and exploration, which she says is essential for growth and development, however teachers are being asked to teach their students in an isolated manner.

“Education has become an equity issue – who can afford to keep their kids safe and who can’t. I want to do better. I believe that we can. There’s still an opportunity to make change,” she says. “We know this is a challenging time but this is why it’s more important than ever to really work together.”

For Horwath, the back-to-school plan is “cutting corners” from one end of the province to the other and she says the premier is leaving it in the hands of educators and educational workers, teachers and children to ensure schools are going to be safe.

“I would have been making sure that we had a safe return to school by investing in a safe return to school. I wouldn’t be crossing my fingers and hoping for the best,” she says, adding she would be “stepping up to the plate” to make sure school safety is number one and kids, families, parents and educators all feel comfortable with the back-to-school plan.

“It’s really clear for a safe back to school, children are going to need caring adults around them to help learn and maintain proper protocols around the pandemic and it’s really clear from these moms that they’re just not feeling comfortable the government has done everything they can to make sure their kids are going back to school in a safe manner, and that’s just not good enough,” says Horwath.

She notes this is where investment needs to go.

“We need to invest in the safe return of school for ours kids, one that gives peace of mind to the educators and the educational workers, assistants and custodians, and peace of mind to families and caregivers,” she says. “And, it also gives a sense of security to the kids themselves.”