Teachers and students across Ontario have returned to classrooms this week. This is incredibly stressful for many parents. For the Doug Ford government, however, it’s an opportunity to further their ideological agenda.

In June, Education Minister Stephen Lecce tweeted that “parental choice will guide the way forward” for the post-pandemic education system. And it will — toward a two-tiered education system and the wholesale abdication of public responsibility for children’s well-being. This is because the choices parents are being presented with are: send kids to an underfunded public system, teach them at home, or send them to private schools.

Studies show that children aren’t immune to contracting and spreading COVID-19, and are at risk of developing serious complications with long-term impacts. This is troubling for the future of public schools, because many believe they won’t be able to keep kids safe.

Ford’s COVID-19 prevention protocols have been exorciated by teachers and parents across the province. Public school classroom sizes remain impossibly high — up to 26 students per room in Toronto kindergartens, for example. Moreover, most school boards have neither the space nor the funding to lower class sizes enough to respect Ontario Public Health Guidelines for two metre-spacing between individuals. Northern Ontario schools face particular issues of staffing and limited Wi-Fi access, as well as ongoing infrastructure problems due to consistent lack of funding.

The public plan also puts teachers and administrative staff at significant risk. Last week, Ontario’s four major teachers unions filed complaints with the Ministry of Labour, arguing that the government’s plan does not take “every reasonable precaution” to protect workers from illness. Bus driver unions are also concerned for the health and safety of their workers, who are now expected to clean and sanitize their buses without additional compensation, while transporting children at near-full capacity. Ford blames the union responses on “ideology,” not the dangers of teaching packed classrooms of students during a global pandemic.

Things are different in private schools, which have the resources to easily adhere to, and often exceed, public health protocols. Lecce is the product of one such well-endowed institution. His alma mater, St. Michael’s College in Toronto — which charges an average of $23,000 per year — has remarkable opening plans.

Their website details hospital grade “sanitizing foggers” to clean surfaces in 90 seconds, moveable plexiglass barriers for teachers and administrators, and state of the art thermal cameras located at student entrances. These cameras reportedly can take up to 1,000 temperatures in just 90 seconds, meaning that if a student enters the building with a high temperature, administrators immediately receive an email notification with their picture.

Other private schools have attempted to reassure parents by citing similar safety protocols. Toronto’s Branksome Hall, for example, promises no more than 15 students per class, consistent two metre distancing between desks, the installation of 100 air purifiers and the outfitting of their two on-campus Health and Wellness Centres with additional PPE. Ashbury College in Ottawa states that they’ve updated their HVAC and ventilation systems and installed plexiglass barriers, and are also urging students to wear masks that are “appropriate in look” for their venerable halls.

These vastly different levels of safety measures — due to a lack of funding, which the Ford government is partially responsible for — means there’s a good chance parents will take their kids out of public schools and either keep them home or send them elsewhere.

Toronto public elementary and high school boards have reported that 30 and 22 per cent of students respectively won’t attend this fall. Meanwhile, the CBC has reported that Ottawa area private schools are receiving a significant increase in enrolment requests, as parents scramble to find solutions to keep their children safe. This is a dangerous cycle, because fewer kids in the public system means even less funding.

In April 2019, following protests against the government’s proposed cuts to the education system, a grade six teacher in Ottawa presciently warned that “this is just Doug Ford’s first step into privatizing education.” The pandemic has only accelerated what was already in motion: the hollowing out of public education in Ontario and the creation of a two-tiered system.

The wealthy can pay to keep their children as safe as possible from COVID-19, while the vast majority of Ontario students and teachers are denied adequate safety protocols. Today, the right to health and safety for children and workers at school is a luxury only few can afford.