Between a rock and a hard place: Back-to-school plan leaves families with ‘impossible alternatives’

By | September 5, 2020

It’s Sept. 2. School is scheduled to start in six days, and I have no idea what that means for my family. 

I don’t know if my kids will attend in person, if they’ll be granted medical exemptions, or if I will be home-schooling — and if home-schooling, I’m unsure if my children will be able to re-enter the public system this year, or their language programs when they do return. I don’t know if the holes in the plans that have been presented by my children’s public schools can be filled adequately, and in time for the scheduled return to school next week. 

Never before have I known so much about what I do not know.

I do know that I am not to “live in fear.” That I am supposed to “learn to live with this virus.” And that apparently, this means largely pretending that adding masks, hand sanitizer and lineups to the status quo substantiates an adequate safety protocol for the reopening of public schools. 

This is an overgeneralization to be certain, but the timeline of this ambitious undertaking suggests that the provincial government’s concerns lie not with doing this safely, sustainably, or in a manner that we’re prepared to live with for the months (or years) to come — but rather in doing it quickly, with minimal expense, and then crossing fingers that it doesn’t go sideways.

With school reopening less than a week away, the only thing that parents know for certain is this — we have been put between a rock and a very hard place. 

Lack of choice will force shift from public schools

Unless you have the medical documentation to access supported home-learning, or live in one of the few school divisions offering some model of distance education, your choice for September is the provincial government’s way or the highway.

Either one opts for in-class learning (without fully understanding what it will look like) or one opts out: not just from in-class learning, but from public education, full stop. 

For many families, this “in-or-out” approach is a choice between two equally impossible alternatives. For others — students with special needs, vulnerable populations, parents of at-risk youth, and food-insecure families — school is not just education, it’s a lifeline. The thought of cutting it off is impossible to entertain.

Still, given the confusing plans and the conflicting advice, some families will opt for home-schooling. It offers educational continuity in contrast to abrupt changes caused by closures, sick time, and policy reversals; it maintains family ties; and it assures close adherence to public health guidelines that inadequately funded schools are ill-equipped to deliver.

But home-schooling may have unintended consequences for our public schools. If classes are amalgamated to maximize financial savings, home-schooling will not reduce class size. And because next year’s budget will be informed by this year’s enrolments, schools are likely to lose funding for students who opt out. 

Elementary school students return to class in Ottawa in an Aug. 19 photo. Manitoba’s approach means that ‘when it’s safe to go back, schools simply won’t be the places we left back in March,’ says Bowman Wilson. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Should parents choose what they believe to be their children’s immediate best interests, then? Or should they focus on protecting the institutions to which they hope their children will one day return? 

People will not be leaving the public school system by choice. They’ll be forced out for lack of choice.

And let’s not forget the “private” ramifications of home schooling. The she-cession will undoubtedly grow as lower income earners (generally women) work less, or in a reduced capacity, while balancing the burden of home-schooling.

Students will have widely varying educational experiences, adding layers of complexity to a broader return to school in the future. Families will lose access to language programs, specialists, and supports. 

At home, there will be families that are completely overwhelmed, unable to cope with the many challenges of home-schooling. Not everyone will succeed. 

Lasting affect on schools

The decision to home-school requires that families have certain levels of flexibility in their finances and schedules, in addition to faith in their ability to meet their children’s instructional needs.

The flight of these relatively privileged families from the public school system may exacerbate existing inequities within and between schools and school divisions, compounding issues already amplified by the delegation of planning and implementation to the front lines. 

The decision to offer no middle ground between in-class and private learning is not surprising for this government. Nor is it an accident of circumstance. This government has underfunded education since it was first elected. 

The risk with defunding important public programs, as politicos know well, is that governments can then claim they are failing and turn them over to private capital. That is what we are seeing here. 

Our education minister has stated publicly that “maybe [education] shouldn’t even be primarily a state activity.” Few are surprised that the government of Manitoba is providing inadequate resources (matched by insufficient energy or imagination) to a planned return to school. 

Don’t mistake what Manitobans have been offered here for choice. Families that are able to, will — in the absence of viable alternatives — educate their children elsewhere: in private schools or at their own kitchen tables. Schools will be further stripped of resources. 

When it’s safe to go back, schools simply won’t be the places we left back in March. This in-or-out “plan” ensures that. 

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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