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When The System Decides Kids In Your School Aren’t Worth Keeping Safe

Class sizes are the latest challenge facing neighbourhoods like Toronto's Regent Park.

“Do I have school tomorrow, mum?”

My son would ask me this question every night for the first six months of the pandemic. It became a familiar part of our bedtime routine, after pyjamas were put on and teeth were brushed. He’d seek his mother’s reassurance; meanwhile, I’d struggle to find the words. How do I tell my kids that everything will be OK, when I’m not sure that it will?

My nine-year-old son, Isaiah, is severely intellectually disabled and considered non-verbal. One of my most heartbreaking experiences as a parent has been to watch him struggle without school, applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy or playgrounds, all shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19. His anxiety would rise like steam off of his skin, palpable to me and his three siblings, his distress reverberating throughout our Toronto home.

Class sizes at Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Toronto's Regent Park have alarmed the writer and other parents.
Rick Madonik via Getty Images
Class sizes at Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Toronto's Regent Park have alarmed the writer and other parents.

So when Ontario announced that schools would reopen in September, I could finally tell him “yes,” emphatically and with relief. At the time, it was an easy decision. Isaiah thrives on routine and consistency — the keys to his mental health. I felt relief that I could give him what he’d been missing since the pandemic started.

We went over rules about masks and hand sanitizer and social distancing. Then, the night before his first day, I learned that class sizes at his downtown school were set to be absolutely massive compared to others — 34 kids, larger than Ontario’s average of 24.5 (an average that, presumably, most schools have the funding to support), and significantly larger than the 15- to 20-student class sizes of schools in neighbouring catchments.

My heart sank. It felt like I had to choose between my son’s continued development and mental health, and putting him at significant risk of infection.

“Exposure to one classroom of 34 is risky enough; six is untenable in the extreme.”

Isaiah attends an old school in Toronto’s Regent Park. The community is vibrant, the stuff downtown is made of — filled with new immigrant families, many languages and styles of dress, and big, multi-generational homes.

Regent Park is also among Toronto’s hardest-hit neighbourhoods as far as COVID-19 is concerned, an effect of “revitalization” efforts that provided the area a facelift without fixing the systems of oppression that keep many residents, predominantly people of colour, experiencing poverty. Indeed, a recent report by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, highlights how our collective inaction on poverty, unsuitable housing and discrimination has led to disadvantaged Toronto neighbourhoods being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

You may ask yourself how it’s possible for school conditions in Regent Park to differ so much from other schools just a stone’s throw away — the kinds with fancy pedigrees that real-estate agents love to talk up.

The answer is simple: it’s because nobody cares about neighbourhoods like Regent Park.

Regent Park has received a facelift, but not enough by way of supports for marginalized communities.
Rick Madonik via Getty Images
Regent Park has received a facelift, but not enough by way of supports for marginalized communities.

I mean, I care, but I grew up in a nearly identical neighbourhood in Toronto’s West end: Mount Dennis. We had breakfast and lunch programs, and faced similar inequalities and challenges. Kids as young as seven (myself included) walked home after school to wait until their parents came back from work. I was able to break the cycle of poverty, a “feast or famine” mentality that my New Canadian family experienced — and I recognize that my privilege has more to do with that than I do — but my heart is in neighbourhoods like Regent Park and Mount Dennis, and I’ve never stopped advocating for families from marginalized areas, as well as families of kids with disabilities.

I connected with friends and families whose children also go to the school. One thing was clear: we all felt terrified. But as I became aware, many families, especially immigrants, felt uneasy “rocking the boat” or speaking up for fear of losing OHIP, or the CERB, or facing some other perceived retribution. One such parent, a single mom of six, planned to keep all but one of her kids at home for online learning. In her eyes, exposure to one classroom of 34 is risky enough; six is untenable in the extreme.

Together with the school’s tiny parent council, we waged a letter-writing campaign. We contacted trustees, city councillors and MPPs. We begged them to ask themselves why their kids were more important than ours going to school in Regent Park.

The writer, left, and her son, Isaiah.
Charlotte Schwartz
The writer, left, and her son, Isaiah.

Their responses were underwhelming. A “lack of funding” remained the reason why Regent Park’s classes remained so large. Their refrain rang hollow when, at the time, the Ontario Financial Accountability Office determined that $382M — half — of funding set aside for the “Safe Return to School Fund” had yet to be allocated.

They passed the proverbial buck to higher levels of government, and signed off by ensuring us that they shared our concerns. Just another way of offering “thoughts and prayers” to a circumstance that poses incalculable risks — 34 children returning to 34 different homes, some with elderly grandparents, and others with parents who must work outside of the home.

The situation recently got marginally better over the past two months, but it is evolving every day. Even with some kids voluntarily switching to online learning, the class sizes in Regent Park are still too large, exceeding Toronto Public Health’s recommendations. The school’s hands are tied and they are doing the best they can with the limited resources they’ve been given. The situation is no safer — we’re just more used to it.

It feels as though the provincial government is intent on making parents fight for each and every incremental change, wearing us down until we give up and give in. It reminds me of the dynamics I witnessed growing up in Mount Dennis — 30 years ago. Have we really not made any progress since then?

People ignore inequality because it’s uncomfortable, but 2020 has been an uncomfortable year. These circumstances present with a timely, though unexpected, opportunity to make change, and for people to start paying attention to others’ circumstances.

If our country’s greatness is measured by how we treat our most vulnerable members, we are failing neighbourhoods like Regent Park and Mount Dennis miserably. If we keep doing the same things in neighbourhoods like these, we will continue to see the same results. There is no reason why, in 2020, neighbourhoods like Regent Park should go without the safe environment afforded to other schools.

As Dr. Tam wrote in her report, “The COVID-19 pandemic has jolted our collective consciousness into recognizing that equity is vital for ensuring health security.” There’s no time to lose.

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