Photo By: Ivan Aleksic from Unsplash

Just two days before students were originally supposed to return to school following the regularly scheduled winter break, the Government of Ontario announced that instruction will be moving online until at least Jan. 17. 

This decision was announced alongside other restrictions that aim to limit the spread of COVID-19 as the province experiences a rise in both cases and hospitalizations.

It has left many frustrated, including parents, teachers, and students themselves. Some say that keeping students out of schools is the wrong choice. An open letter, signed by 136 community leaders, many of whom are doctors, urged the premier to reopen schools. The letter cited mental health concerns, access to school lunches, and future academic success as reasons why continued school closures are not in the best interest of Ontario’s children. 

There are countless reasons why students suffer when schools are closed, the main one being that the school system in Ontario does a lot more than educate children. Students are able to access mental health resources, connect with their friends and peers, and for some, free lunch programs provide the most reliable source of food that they have access to. 

The desperate need for schools to remain open, despite the great risk of infection that the Omicron variant poses, has shown just how broken so many of the systems in Ontario are. Why is the most reliable source of free childcare an elementary school? Why don’t all children have equal and reliable access to good food all the time? Why are mental health resources so difficult to access? 

The fact of the matter is, COVID-19 is still a very real problem. Teachers and support staff are rightfully concerned about the possibility of outbreaks. The province doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure to handle the amount of teachers who, in all likelihood, would have gotten sick if everyone returned to in-person learning last week. 

It really seems like students and all the people who work in schools were going to suffer no matter what the Ontario government decided to do with them. With school online, students are going to suffer the effects of isolation and being deprived access to many different support systems. If students had returned to in-person education on Jan. 5, they would have returned to buildings that are poorly ventilated, without access to proper testing or the more effective N95 masks that are now being recommended. 

The pandemic has shone a light on societal problems that have always existed and this situation is no different. It’s not ideal to be learning algebra through a computer screen, it’s an incredible challenge to try to teach 32 six year-olds how to count over Zoom, but I find myself wondering, did this have to be a catastrophe?

What if parents were able to take time off work to stay home with their kids without fear of losing their jobs? What if everyone had access to food? What if mental health care was free and kids didn’t face stigma for needing to access it? What if everyone in Ontario had more sick days? What if we had a better, more robust social safety net in this province?

The problem with school closures really has very little to do with education itself, it’s about all the other things that people rely on the school system for. If the only thing we relied on school to do is teach people, then two weeks of online instruction would be an inconvenience, not a disaster. That’s not all we rely on the school system for though, and it’s become blatantly apparent over the last nearly two years of sporadic closures.

The Ontario government needs to do better, not just when it comes to planning for schools to reopen safely, but also when it comes to supporting people throughout the pandemic and beyond. We’re long overdue for a robust pandemic response, one that isn’t just concerned with reopening, but making sure we have strong social infrastructure in place to support people during and after lockdowns.