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Ontario Parents Action Network
September 29, 2020
The Ontario Parents Action Network on the importance of intersecting with other organizing efforts.
Tell us about the Ontario Parents Action Network. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?
We are a grassroots collective of parents and other family members that came together in a moment of crisis, due to the threats of further attacks and defunding of public public education from the Doug Ford government. We began a campaign to resist those cuts and to work explicitly in solidarity with education workers who were heading into bargaining and negotiation with the government. Then we pivoted to face the dire circumstances that public education finds itself in during this pandemic. Where we are watching the government come up with inadequate, deficient plans to address transmission through appropriate safety and health protocols for workers, kids and the broader community. We are seeing the consequences of the failure to adequately plan for the reopening of schools with recent outbreaks. Our campaign now is about healthy, safe, equitable schools.
What makes us unique is that we link the struggle for properly funded public education to a broader politic with the understanding that public services in general have been so underfunded. We are trying to provide an alternative perspective than the dominant frame offered by most governments, which is a strong adherence to austerity and neoliberalism. We’re trying to counter that explicitly by talking about the increasing and deepening polarization in terms of income and equity in this province, this country and globally.
Your website has a list of #SafeSeptember demands like smaller class sizes and increased funding for student supports. You also include demands related to addressing racism, worker protections and housing. Why is it important to intersect with other organizing efforts?
It’s really important to us to ensure that we’re understanding safety within our school system as a concept that reaches far more broadly than specifics to this pandemic. We want to echo the long articulated call from many organizers, racialized communities and community leaders that there have been overlapping crises within public education for decades. So those calls for removing police from all public schools, to update the curriculum to stop reflecting a white supremacist perspective of the world – that’s about supporting the inclusion of lives and histories of all students in the classroom and the adults working to support them.
The government needs to address safety as a wider concept than about wellness. It’s about driving being seen and not having oppressive discriminatory conditions within the school system. This is not just about what happens in the classroom but about the conditions of life. We need to also be talking about ways to secure dignified permanent housing, to address food deserts and resolve other kinds of social issues. This is about more than COVID-19 testing outcomes. It’s about thriving communities and tangible change that secures a good quality of life for all.
Tell us about #SafeSeptember as a campaign and as a way to mobilize.
Well see #SafeSeptember as a concept, a rallying cry that encapsulates what we’re fighting for. It’s a campaign that we launched with other parent organizing groups and education worker groups. It has caught on very widely – it’s an international hashtag. There are groups following or aligning in most provinces across the country now. It involved us working over the summer, trying to mount significant pressure as needed to force the government to allocate funding and resources needed to keep community transmission at a minimum. This was about ensuring children and staff had a plan to return that was safe, sustainable and equitable. We think we accomplished a lot but not what was needed. The government has not allocated the funding necessary and has doubled down on their refusal to address the deeply held concerns of parents, grandparents, epidemiologists, doctors – so many that have a stake in #SafeSeptember. It is shocking and really troubling.
What’s a key insight from organizing during a pandemic?
The level of uprising in the United States has had an impact here on motivation and inspiration. A lot of people understand that about this moment. The stakes are very high and they’re willing to put themselves on the line in ways that didn’t feel as possible or didn’t feel as watershed as it does now. We’re at a really important crossroads as a society and as a planet.
That said, it’s always important to be really creative when you’re mainly trying to mobilize parents because their time capacities, especially during the pandemic balancing work with kids, has been terrifically draining. So you know everyone needs help, everyone needs an outlet for their frustration and anger and to feel like they’re part of something that’s trying to improve the situation. We tend to use a decentralized model that allows people to take action locally – with their local government representative or at their actual school. That’s the trend that we’re trying to stick with because we’ve found it’s the most effective in terms of actually mobilizing people. We also need to make sure that we are not under doing it or overdoing it. We try to stay connected without asking too much.
We are well into September now. So what comes next?
We think what comes next is continuing to fight for the improvements that are needed, not just within schools. Certainly absolutely within schools but also on a broader level to bring down community transmission which at this point is terrifyingly high. What we want is to be able to see the situation improved so that there’s a chance schools might be able to stay open during the pandemic. But we’re far from the conditions for that now. So those are the sort of circumstances that we’ll be examining and working really closely with the parent leaders in different parts of the province to address. We are also linked with different education worker organizations to make sure we have a really united front, so that we can mount as broad and powerful a resistance as we can.
For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?
Image Credit: Amber Williams-King
The Ontario Parents Action Network is a collective of concerned parents, guardians, & grandparents organizing to resist the Ford government’s cuts to public education. We want fully-funded, equitable schools for our kids, & we stand in solidarity with education workers.