Submitted by Joel Harden, Ottawa Centre MPP
At its Feb. 23 board meeting, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) informed parents that we were returning to the quadmester system next fall for high schools, with the continuation of cohorting, so students will only attend in person every other day. The OCDSB took this decision given trends in public health, and forecasts for future provincial funding.
I have written to Stephen Lecce, the minister of education, urging him to stop the cuts to education and maintain and expand the COVID-19 funding for schools to keep kids safe, invest in mental health supports and guarantee that no education worker or teacher loses their job.
Staff in our public schools have worked tirelessly to keep our kids safe and to keep them engaged in learning, but the strain of doing so is considerable. Staff are exhausted, and in need of further support. The minister’s recent announcement, confirmed in the 2021 provincial budget, that the funding given to school boards for COVID-19 costs would be withdrawn for fall 2021 only makes matters worse. For the OCDSB, this cut will mean the loss of 167 teaching positions.
After a year of making hard sacrifices, people want a return to a semblance of normalcy. The plan to return to the adaptive quadmester model — which is not working for most students despite the best efforts of staff — is based on concerns around stability and adequate funding. We want this government to offer hope that we can return to a learning environment that helps staff and students be their fullest selves by ensuring the funding required for a smooth transition back to full-day, in-person learning as soon as it is safe to do so.
We also know a third pandemic wave has been here for some time: youth mental health is suffering at record levels. Health officials in Ottawa note a 60 per cent rise in the number of youth reporting eating disorders, and a 30 per cent increase in the need for youth counselling and addiction services. There is a corollary increase for youth admissions to emergency departments, suffering from anxiety, depression, self-harm and other mental health issues.
Now is not the time to be withdrawing funding from our public schools. Parents, students and staff want a safe and supportive return to school in fall 2021, and that requires maintaining (and increasing) current funding levels. This will enable, among other things, smaller class sizes, decent staff ratios, well-functioning infrastructure, continued COVID-19 health and safety measures as required and proper support for students with disabilities.
That’s why we’re insisting that the province maintain and enhance present COVID-19 funding for the 2021-2022 school year. Trends suggest the vaccine rollout will be well underway by then, but students and staff will still face massive challenges in readjusting to more fulsome in-person learning.
This government must maintain and increase funding for public education, and do right by students and staff. They deserve no less.