“My son has never had a normal year of school”: For parents, the stress of a potential education strike is a kick in a tender spot

“My son has never had a normal year of school”: For parents, the stress of a potential education strike is a kick in a tender spot

After years of pandemic disruptions, can our kids really afford to miss another day, week or month of class?

Photograph courtesy of Matt Gurney

It’s one thing to watch the news as a journalist and wonder how to cover it. Over the last week or so, though, I’ve just been another parent wondering if my young kids are going to be out of school for an extended period. Again.

It’s all very familiar by now, of course. Can I shuffle my deadlines? Should we get rotating playdates going with neighbours so we can have some quiet in the house when we have an important Zoom call? Do we still have the number of that tutor we used during Covid, and should we call her again if this drags on? Anyway, there’s always the grandparents, right?

This is stress we don’t need—a kick in an already tender spot. I remind myself that, all things considered, others have it way worse: people on shift work, single parents, parents of kids with special needs, those for whom a missed shift means a missed rent payment or a skipped meal. But, even among the affluent and privileged, the frustration, the sense of weariness at more of this, is strong.

All of these concerns stem from the breakdown in talks between the Ontario government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents about 55,000 education workers in the province (but not teachers, who have their own unions). CUPE came in with high wage demands—an 11.7 per cent annual raise—for workers including educational assistants, secretaries and custodians. The union has since decreased its demands to a roughly 6 percent raise, but says its members remain prepared to strike.

On Monday, the government brought down legislation, invoking the notwithstanding clause, to avert any possible school closures and impose a contract on the workers. There’s still time to negotiate, but as it stands, CUPE is saying its education workers plan to walk out on Friday no matter what the government orders. This would close schools.

So, once again, like parents everywhere, I plan.

The dispute between Doug Ford and CUPE touches on a lot of big, important issues. It’s a complicated situation. There’s the government’s use, yet again, of the notwithstanding clause. There’s the context of the looming negotiations with teachers’ unions and the government’s desire to send a strong message. There are the broader issues of organized labour and the rights of workers. There’s the cost-of-living crisis. And there’s the raw politics of it all, with a re-elected Ford flexing his muscles.

But, for millions of parents, whatever their feelings on those complicated and important issues, this is actually pretty simple: Should their children miss another day of school after the massive pandemic-era disruptions? Ford seems to be betting that the public, especially parents, will loudly answer, “No!”—and won’t punish a government that moves aggressively to keep kids in class. Hell, the public might even reward it. In this, Ford is probably right. Because parents are more upset than many realize—and I’m one of them.

At hockey rinks and in schoolyards, you can’t miss parents’ fear—and some anger—over how far behind their kids are. This cuts across the usual demographic and political divides: dear friends, avowed left-leaning Liberals from downtown Toronto, have confessed to me that they’d never vote for Ford but they’re quietly rooting for him this time. I’ve heard more of that than you’d believe. This isn’t a politics-as-usual issue. Parents are paying attention—they’re engaged, and not along the usual partisan lines. If you have young kids in Ontario today, chances are you’re worried that your child has fallen behind and are unlikely to support anyone who’d make it worse.

There doesn’t seem to be any consistent sense of what “behind” means. Details vary, whether it relates to education or life experiences, but the anxiety seems universal. Parents fear that their kids have missed out on something irreplaceable and that they may not get it back. We’ll have a better idea in a generation, after future academics pore over decades of data. Until then, we’re mostly guessing. Maybe it’ll be a blip. Kids have certainly known disruption and hardship before. But, while we wait on the verdict of future experts, that fear persists. What did my kid miss? How will this change their life?

There’s a version of this for every age group. Some friends of mine, older couples whose children are either at or now approaching university age, worry that their kids will struggle to adapt to living away because they missed out on key experiences during adolescence. Other friends, with babies born in 2020, wonder what was lost when all the infant playdates stopped and toddler gymnastics classes shut down. My wife and I, with a 10-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son, were relieved when our older extrovert settled back into her somewhat-familiar pre-Covid routine. But we worry about our quieter eight-year-old, who has never had a normal year of school.

Let me repeat that: my son, now in the third grade, has never had a normal year of school. Preschool and JK? Sure. But then Covid struck mid-senior-kindergarten, in a year already disrupted by job actions from teachers during contract negotiations with the province. (Once the pandemic began, deals were quickly reached.) Schools closed and didn’t reopen. The next year, his first grade, was a complete fiasco, with schools opening and closing as the virus surged and waned. The second grade was better but still had a lot of shifting rules and a relatively brief shutdown after Christmas. This year was the first shot for my son to know a normal school year.

And there are thousands of other kids like him out there, each with a parent (or two) who worries that their child has already lost too much.

Don’t discount the guilt parents feel. We spent years telling our kids, “No, you can’t do this.” Denying them birthday parties, family trips, sports and activities, even just playdates. If you aren’t a parent and don’t understand why people might get so passionate about whether their kids stay in a classroom, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s all about the lesson plan or just a desire to ship them off so that the house is quiet for a few hours. Those both matter, but the bigger concern for many is that we’re tired of saying no to our kids. We’re tired of telling them that they can’t do things. We’re tired of having things taken away from them.

We knew that measures to limit the spread of Covid were important. We went along, for the most part. We waited. We got our jabs. Many of us got our kids jabbed. In exchange, we want normalcy back. Not for us but for them.

The Ford government’s treatment of CUPE is undeniably heavy handed—probably on purpose, to send a signal to other unions. It’s also unnecessarily nasty. Ford could have struck a better deal with education workers, like imposing a short-term contract with a higher wage boost to help them ride out inflation, as I proposed weeks ago. That might have eased the concerns of parents out there who, though worried about their kids, don’t like Ford or what he’s doing.

But Ford doesn’t need Ontarians to like what he’s doing. He doesn’t need them to have no qualms about the use of the notwithstanding clause to undermine Charter rights. He doesn’t need parents to have zero sympathy for the workers or to not wonder about what this means for the future of collective bargaining. All he needs is for the public to accept that dropping the hammer on CUPE is less bad than their children missing another day, week or month in class.

Like I said, the issues here are important. But parents put the perceived welfare of their children ahead of everything else. So, on balance, Ford is probably right. It’s not that the other concerns don’t matter. It’s just that, to parents, their kids matter more.


November 3, 2022

This story has been updated to correct an error.