Chronic underfunding of schools could now mean infections and deaths

Unsafe school openings remind us how easily we become expendable
Photo: Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute, Toronto, Ontario. By Can Pac Swire.
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My mother holds her grandson more tightly and for a few moments longer than usual, reminding him she won’t be able to do this once he’s returned to school.

My partner, a teacher, worries that it will be months before she can be in the same room as her own family, fearing she’ll expose them to something contracted from students.

These are very different back-to-school jitters than I grew up with. But as children and teenagers prepare to pack too densely into small classrooms and tight hallways in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, families have to contend with anxieties like these and worse, particularly in lower-income neighbourhoods. A mid-August poll finds that only in Quebec and Manitoba do a majority of parents approve of provincial reopening plans.

Teachers, too, are worried. A letter sent in mid-August by Ontario’s teacher unions to the provincial education ministry, for example, expresses very serious concerns about starting the school year before classroom sizes, classroom ventilation, and much else is addressed. Until that occurs, teachers and students face an #UnsafeSeptember.

Little help appears to be forthcoming from the province. In addition to the government exaggerating the funding it is dedicating to ensure a safe reopening, Progressive Conservative premier Doug Ford offered an icy response to teacher unions: “Now, it’s time teachers step up, everyone else has sacrificed.” (Provincial Liberal party leader Steven Del Duca replied, “What is Doug Ford asking them to sacrifice? Their lives?”)

The rush to get students back to school in Ontario and elsewhere before proper precautions are in place is a window into something disquieting about our society. It’s like there’s a lot of us who don’t matter much at all, like the well-being of a portion of the population can always be risked — sacrificed — in order to uphold some arbitrary notion of how things have to be.

A lethal common sense

The unsafe conditions under which too many schools are now reopening have much to do with the neoliberal model of the world that has come to define common sense.

To believe that society should be run on the same principles as a profit-maximizing competitive business is to believe (however irrationally) that government failure to tightly balance budgets while cutting spending and keeping taxes low will of course bring economic hardship. (In the 1990s, massive cuts to education were part of what Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris called a “Common Sense Revolution.”)

In the before-times, the impacts of this underfunding were all too predictable, eroding both quality of education and teacher well-being through overcrowded classrooms, high instructor-to-student ratios, lack of support staff, outmoded infrastructure, growth in standardized testing promoting memorize-and-regurgitate learning, rising school fees, and more.

In the Age of COVID, it’s this same underfunding that has now made schools sources of a potential surge in infections and deaths.

Why is it that people would ever accept this?

So your existence has been made superfluous

Even if we’re not completely aware of it, most of us develop a system of ideological belief, a mental model of not only how the world works, but also how it ought to.

These models play an important political role, helping us to make sense of the systems and forces that determine our lives and to evaluate the desirability and viability of changes to them.

But they’re also deceptively powerful. They root so deeply into our minds that they never really feel like the imperfect cognitive tools that they are: subject to bias, motivated reasoning, error, misinformation, oversimplification, inculcation, and all the rest. Rather, they feel like reason, like common sense, like the application of obvious iron laws to predict what goes right under some set of conditions and why things will inevitably go wrong under others. (If this seems abstract, imagine all the terrible things a committed, Trump-supporting Republican would tell you would happen if you suggested that the U.S. should institute much stricter gun laws or provide universal healthcare.)

Once a single vision of how the world ought to work gets locked in as common-sense judgment, it’s easy to be convinced that attempts to improve things will only make them worse. (I suspect this is why we so often see those on the right delighting in examples of progressive programs supposedly backfiring, their gleeful response to the widely criticized Planet of the Humans documentary being a recent example.) And the problem comes when an ideological model ignores or accepts as necessary and unavoidable brutal human consequences of the world it creates — when it requires rationalizing the risk or sacrifice of people’s well-being.

A simple, dangerous formula

The unsafe school reopenings that follow from the “common sense” neoliberal beggaring of education are just one example of this tendency, but we see this formula — structural changes to improve or protect lives will only fail or hurt — everywhere.

We see it in the rejection of calls to defund the police on the too-simple assumption that, without a lavishly funded police force to surveil us, crime would spike. The expendability of black and brown lives is thereby rationalized.

It’s there in the simplistic Econ 101 view of the world that insists raising the minimum wage would necessarily create unemployment in the long term by reducing demand for labour. The working poor stay working poor.

We’ve watched it, too, in the U.S. as Trump and other Republicans have been willing to sacrifice American lives in order to avoid pressing pause on capitalism during the COVID-19 crisis.

And, of course, the tacit acceptance of an expendable population of unpeople also lies behind the political decisions to delay action on climate change, to set climate policy goals far below what is required to prevent more than 1.5 C of warming, the most ambitious target set under the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s as though great swathes of humanity can be sacrificed because so many are convinced that an extractivist, high-consumption, fossil-fuelled society is the only way of securing human well-being.

And we will see it again as calls grow to open borders, provide basic income guarantees, and instate shorter work weeks.

This is an old problem. (Writing at the turn of the 19th century, British political economist Thomas Malthus opposed efforts to improve the lives of the poor due to a belief this would only increase their population beyond what food systems could sustain, leading to war, disease, and famine.)

Solutions aren’t obvious. It’s why a constant, democratic push for successful examples of programs that put human decency above preserving the status quo is so important. It’s why moments of crisis, when grand delusions no longer make sense, offer crucial occasions to redefine the possible. Because once it’s the norm to accept that some people need to be expendable for the system to work, unsafe Septembers stop being occasions for outrage, and just come to seem like the way things have to be.

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