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Canada Opinion: Ontario shamelessly withholding COVID funding from private schools

14:25  27 july  2021
14:25  27 july  2021 Source:   nationalpost.com

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The Province of Ontario has said that it is taking its responsibility to protect schoolchildren during the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. But if that were true, why is it withholding emergency funding from a significant number of schools?

a bus that is parked on the side of a road © Provided by National Post

In January, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce penned an open letter to parents, stating that, “To ensure our schools remain safe in January 2021 and beyond, we will continue and enhance testing in schools and allocate a new and significant investment in school safety, including in enhanced air quality, more PPE and additional staffing and cleaning. We will do whatever it takes to ensure our kids can continue to learn.”

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Given this rhetoric, many were surprised to learn that those government “investments” in school safety only went to schools the government deemed “worthy” of receiving funds to keep their students safe.

If your child was enrolled in a public or Catholic school in Ontario, the school received full emergency COVID funding from the Ontario government. On the other hand, if your child attended a Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Greek Orthodox or any other independent school, including nonreligious ones, the school received nothing.

The COVID emergency funds that Ontario distributed to its schools came from the federal government’s $2-billion Safe Return to Class Fund. The money was provided to ensure “a safe return to class,” “protect students and staff” and focus on “the immediate needs of schools.”

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Crucially, the fund allocated money based on the number of school children in a province between four and 18 years old, not the number of children enrolled in public schools. The fund never distinguished between public and independent schools. Why would it? After all, the SARS-CoV-2 virus makes no such distinction when it spreads.

Ontario received $763 million from the fund, which is proportional to its total population of school-age children, 150,000 of whom are enrolled in independent schools. Since about 25 per cent of Ontario’s schools are independent, that means that one in four Ontario schools were denied the benefit of funds set aside by the federal government for their protection from COVID-19.

The Trudeau government had paid Ontario its portion of the Safe Return to Class Fund calculated on the inclusion of those 150,000 independent-school students. The Ontario government took the money and then proceeded to exclude those same students, and their schools and staff, from receiving any portion of those funds.

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In a 30-page legal brief filed on July 16, to defend against a lawsuit by three of those independent schools, the Ontario government shamefully wrote that independent schools are not even “schools,” as defined by the province, and so are not deserving of any of the emergency money — for the protection of children during a pandemic.

Why, then, did Ontario count those 150,000 children in the first place, to determine its share of the money from the fund? Was it solely to qualify for a larger share? The government’s legal brief is strangely silent on this critical point.

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had given Ontario funds to allocate among all the nursing homes in the province, could the province have excluded those nursing homes that are operated by less-favoured religious or ethnic groups? Of course not, and there would be public outrage if it tried.

Ontario now seeks to deflect any outrage on the school-funding issue by citing the Constitution Act, 1867, which entitles the province to fund Catholic schools as part of the public school system. Yet that system is no justification for excluding 25 per cent of the province’s schools from the Safe Return to Schools Fund and is not rationally connected to the fund’s objective: preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

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The government had no problem ordering both public and private schools to close during parts of the pandemic, but failed to provide independent schools with the necessary funds to reopen safely when the time came.

Ontario’s decision is bad public policy, since the distinction between publicly funded and independent schools is not relevant to the policy goal being pursued here. But Ontario’s decision is also bad politics, for two reasons.

First, voters would not begrudge the government allocating money to cover its entire student body during a pandemic. Second, the parents of children enrolled in independent schools, such as the Protestant schools in rural Ontario and the Orthodox Jewish schools in Toronto, tend to be strong supporters of Ontario’s Conservative government. Do Conservatives think these parents will forget the discriminatory treatment of their children during the COVID emergency?

Ontario’s conduct has now incited some of those same supporters to sue their own government. A court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 9, and the government is preparing to fight the case. It seems Ontario is intent on doing “whatever it takes” after all — whatever it takes to prevent a quarter of the province’s schools, and their teachers, from obtaining the necessary resources to protect themselves against the virus.

National Post

Allan Kaufman is a Toronto lawyer. Ira Walfish, who swore an affidavit in the lawsuit against the Ontario government, is a director of TeachOn, an advocacy organization for school choice.

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