If you’re hearing Doug Ford saying he loves teachers in one breath and bashing teachers’ unions in the next, here is something you should know.
He is an actor, telling his audience a made-up story. He’s working hard to get the Ontario public to believe in – and condemn – the faction he’s chosen to be the “bad guy” in his story: teachers’ unions.
He says he’s “begging, now, for the teachers’ unions to work with us.”
He says he’s talked with every organization possible in the entire country, including labour groups, and teachers’ unions are the only ones “not cooperating.”
“We’ll work with you. Everything that you’ve wanted, we’ve given you,” he says. He maintains that he’s given us ventilation, “more money for the teachers”, “more cleaning,” and “basically covered every single list.”
“And I’m just asking – just once – for your cooperation.”
He invokes the heroism of PSWs working in long-term care homes, grocery store clerks, and of course health care workers, working through the peak of the pandemic in the province without complaint.
“And then we create the safest environment we possibly can for everyone… and the teachers’ unions just want to fight.”
It’s quite the performance. He’s clearly baffled, exhausted by the bad guy’s behaviour. Every vocal inflection, every gesture underlines his weary incomprehension. Such pathos.
I’d like to address this carefully-crafted little monologue.
- He is not begging teachers’ unions to work with his government. The unions, back in March, asked and asked to be included in the planning process, but were shut out. Teachers got to know the government’s plan at the same time as everyone else in the province – when it was announced. What he is doing is begging unions not to object to the situation schools are currently in. Which, among other troubling aspects, includes classrooms like this:
- If you’re wondering how many students are currently planned to be in this junior classroom, it’s twenty-nine. If you’re wondering whether 2-metre distancing is possible here, the answer is don’t make me laugh. If you’re wondering whether 1-metre distancing is possible here, the blunt answer is No. A very optimistic answer might be Well, in some spots… if nobody moves. Really, Doug? You’ve created the safest environment you possibly can for everyone?
- This example is one classroom in one school, but I know for a fact that it is not just one isolated case of classroom crowding in our school board. These numbers may improve (and I hope they will!!) but the fact remains that this is what the “plan” allows for. Classes of 25-30 are numbers that are manageable (though not ideal) at normal times, but are not keeping people safe in an epidemiological crisis.
- When Ford said he’d given “more money for teachers,” he meant hiring more, ostensibly so that the above could be avoided. After all, this kind of crowding is not allowed in grocery stores, movie theatres, waiting rooms, post offices, malls, restaurants… But where did that funding (most of which came from school boards’ reserve funds) go? Some families have opted for at-home learning; some teachers have decided (or been asked to volunteer) to teach online; some classes have been reorganized or eliminated during that shift. So assuming that new teachers have been hired, there still aren’t enough to consistently avoid crowding. As a parent and as a teacher, I’m very upset by this.
- What I personally know about cleaning is that however many custodians have been hired, cleaning protocols are extensive (as they should be), such that the custodians have had to give up some of their normal duties to attend to the new standards.
- When he says he’s given us “what we wanted”, he is using language that likens Covid-19 protocols to bargaining issues. We didn’t “ask for” better ventilation, extra cleaning, and so on; those are crucial prerequisites for opening schools. They’re public health requirements. This use of “want” is misleading (and irrelevant) in this situation.
- Obviously, we recognize the heroism of the people who have been working hard on the front lines and in essential services through the most dangerous phases of this pandemic. I hope that all Ontarians understand and appreciate – preferably aloud – the risks and sacrifices that have been required of these workers.
And now, Ford is trying to put educators into his hero box. He “loves” us, calls us incredible (as well he might, because we are pretty damn awesome). But here, he’s shown his hand a bit too conspicuously.
He tells us that he meets lots of teachers on the road, and practically every one who speaks to him says, “I apologize for the way the union is acting.”
He says, outright, “I totally differentiate between the two,” referring to teachers and their unions.
He says, “These people [teachers] are gonna be heroes, and these people [unions] wanna fight. I don’t wanna fight with you.”
What a transparent, simple-minded scheme. For any readers who, like Doug Ford, have missed this little tidbit of information: teachers’ unions are UNIONS… of TEACHERS.
Sorry, I’m not falling for this hackneyed “divide-and-conquer” bit. You can’t pit me against my union. Before teachers’ unions, teachers were barely trained, paid a pittance, and could be fired on a whim. Female teachers were paid literally half as much as their male counterparts – and were also expected to singlehandedly clean their own classrooms, make food for children, and never marry.
I owe every hard-fought step of progress since then to my union. Improvement of working conditions is what allows teachers to focus on the education of children and the constant enhancement of their practice. Better education uplifts society. To me, this seems like a worthy goal.
I don’t “apologize for the way my union is acting,” as Ford claims teachers have done in his presence, because although it’s impossible for one union to fully represent every single opinion of all of its teachers on every issue, education in Ontario would be a sad sight without this solidarity, and the generations of united work that have gone into the profession of educating children.
Furthermore, educators have not forgotten the way we were treated a few short months ago, when Ford was not “differentiating” between teachers and unions. We clearly recall being treated as unreasonable (among other things) by this very same government, as we worked to protect the students we serve. Doug can say nice things now, but we have not forgotten his insulting rhetoric. We remember the unity of our protests, and we remember that the union had our backs, in the best interests of education, when the government had abandoned educators and students alike.
Right now, my elementary teachers’ union is objecting to the “plan” that allows for twenty-nine 11-year-olds in a room where they cannot even achieve the minimum distances (indoors, for hours a day) recommended by Public Health. I emphatically believe that Ontario teachers would be united in this objection. And families too, for that matter.
Ford claims that he is “always going to listen to the doctors.” Here’s what doctors say:
“Smaller class sizes should be a priority strategy as it will aid in physical distancing and reduce potential spread from any index case. Several jurisdictions have reopened schools with maximum class sizes ranging from 10-15. However, there is limited evidence on which to base a pre-specified class size. Decisions should take into account the available classroom space in addition to the number of exposures that would occur should a student or staff test positive.”
What the government has demonstrated here is that 1) they have no actual idea of how schools work in this province, and 2) they aren’t bothering to find out.
We, the educators, are stepping up – as Doug Ford said we would. We are doing what we can to prepare while still waiting for confirmation of what we are teaching, and when (schedule-making can’t happen until hiring is done). We are figuring out how we will keep school compelling without group work, assemblies, close-contact sports, singing, musical instruments, shared materials, or the ability to see each other speaking. We are bracing ourselves, trying to work out the intricacies of getting students in and out of the building, constantly washing hands, signing up for group bathroom breaks, making learning happen when people aren’t supposed to touch things other people have touched…
It’s supremely complicated, and we are doing the best we can with what we have. Which we have always done, but now it’s a much, much taller order. Right now, “doing the best we can with what we have” is educational institutions shouldering downloaded responsibility – and risk. This is what we are expected to do, to make the government’s plan look legit.
Doug, we don’t want to “fight with you” either. We don’t want to “play politics” – that’s your thing. Our jobs are about the children and families and staff in our school communities. We’d just like to be afforded the same respect that all Ontarians deserve.
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