OTTAWA - MPP Joel Harden (Ottawa Centre) is echoing the call from Andrea Horwath for the government to help students recover from the pandemic with new mental health supports and by hiring additional teachers and education workers, guaranteeing smaller class sizes and no layoffs. Harden says Ottawa students will need more support and guidance to recover their learning loss, mental health and social well-being after COVID – not less.
Harden wrote the following open letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce calling for critical investments for a safe return to classes this fall.
Hon. Stephen Lecce
Ministry of Education
438 University Ave.
Toronto, ON M5G 2K8
March 18, 2021
At its February 23 board meeting, the Ottawa Carleton District School Board 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.
Minister, it would be challenging to underestimate the anxiety and unrest this news has caused. 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. Your recent announcement that the funding given to school boards for COVID-19 costs would be withdrawn for Fall 2021 only makes matters worse.
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 your 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 percent rise in the number of youth reporting eating disorders, and a 30 percent 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 health and safety measures as required, and proper support for students with disabilities.
We are insisting that, effectively immediately, next week’s provincial budget 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.
Please confirm your government will maintain and increase funding for public education, and do right by students and staff. They deserve no less.
My very best,
MPP for Ottawa Centre