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Back to school and the new Three Rs


 

As you know, we've been having pop-up constituency availability in parks across Don Valley North. Wherever we go, most residents dropping by are expressing their concerns about schools as re-opening plans continue to evolve.


How schools manage the influx of students in their first weeks back is not something City Hall is directly involved in. But, we have our own "Three Rs" that we are doing our best to learn about and contend with — and no, it's not "reading, [w]riting and 'rithmetic."


The new Three Rs are Reopening, Recovery & Rebuild.



Toronto's plan


We have talked about post-pandemic recovery in my e-blast before. I’ve shared my hopes that, as we rebuild our communities, we can change some things that were the source of inequitable treatment even before the virus became a part of our daily lives. This week, Dr. Eileen de Villa introduced her plan to help Toronto respond effectively to a resurgence, or "second wave", of the virus if and when one should occur.


In a joint conference with Mayor Tory, Dr. de Villa reminded us that the medical community knows so much more now about COVID-19 and its transmission than they did back in March. As a result, the City knows which services need to be ready to adapt to a full-scale resurgence of infections and is prepared to manage this with appropriate funding and help from our provincial partners.


Dr. de Villa is confident about our current supply of PPE and our cold-weather plans for homeless and vulnerable residents. Virus testing and contact tracing can be scaled up or down, according to the number of cases. Many city facilities are closed or have limited occupancy in order to keep staff healthy and ready to join the frontlines and put these spaces to use just in case. The list of ways in which we are prepared to help goes on.



Areas of concern


But there are areas where I have concerns. We have no word yet on whether Premier Ford and his provincial government are prepared to arrange for universal workplace testing for school staff. Currently, there is not enough capacity in hospital assessment centres if this becomes necessary.


During virtual learning last Spring, we heard of many families who were left with phone data bills that simply cannot be paid due to lack of access to affordable internet. For those families, there is no choice but to send their kids to school. We still have no news on if school bus service will resume. And we are hearing from parents of special-needs children who still don't know if their schools can accommodate their unique IEP plans.


It was disconcerting to hear the lack of clarity from Premier Ford in his press conference this week when asked about the inevitability of outbreaks in schools. He would only say, “We’ll be in there like Stormtroopers.” This late in the game, parents are looking for something more than rhetoric.


I have nothing but admiration for my peers, the elected representatives on our school boards and the schools and faculties they govern. Many parents are at the doors of their child’s school right now desperate for answers that local schools may not be able to provide. In Ontario, all school boards are legislated and funded by the provincial government, and most major decisions need to flow from there.


The Premier and Minister of Education should have had plans in place well before the end of August. If you're a parent of school-age kids and can't get your questions answered before this weekend, don't blame your local school. Teachers and principals are working as hard as they can to roll with the ever-changing announcements from on high.



What the City can do


Finally, there is one concern I have about the return to school that Toronto politicians can change: crowding on the TTC.


Currently, 450 transit employees are laid-off to mitigate the loss of ridership during the early days of the lockdown. I’m happy that Mayor Tory and TTC CEO Rick Leary want to return 150 of those employees in time for school — but we really need every single driver back on the road.


Our bus system is the backbone of the TTC, particularly during the school year. Schools can be located on any neighbourhood street, and it's students who fill up those shorter bus routes, like the 10 Van Horne in our ward. By high school, students begin to fill up streetcars and subways in long rides to schools that meet their course selections. We need our transit system to be safe for them and for all riders returning to work.


The TTC now has about 50 per cent of its pre-pandemic ridership back. However, TTC Commissioners were told very early in the pandemic that physical distancing on buses can only be achieved with a maximum of 30 per cent ridership.


Our transit system has been overcrowded for years. As we approach the first day of school, we are running a system that any other city in normal times would consider full capacity. People are plopping themselves down onto seats with signs that read "Seat Restricted" because there's no other space. At the next TTC Board Meeting, I will exercise my role as Commissioner to move a motion requesting that all laid-off TTC employees be returned to work. Optimizing our service is the only way we can create a safe environment as we return to work and school.



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