Walsh Canada general manager Tim Meana is spearheading a drive to convince the Ontario government to commit to in-person learning five days a week in schools in the fall.
The construction angle in Meana’s view is that the currently proposed hybrid model with cohorts attending a few days a week and learning via video links the rest of the time not only risks exposing students to multiple risky “bubbles” but also severely handicaps construction productivity.
“This has real implications on the lives of all parents, as we will have to decide what we need to do with our children the remote learning days,” Meanu argued. “Who stays home to teach them? Also, it may force parents to put kids in day care which exposes them to more bubbles of other kids.
“This will have a direct impact on the entire construction industry and expose us all to greater risks as we bring our children into potentially multiple bubbles.”
Meana is working with a parents advocacy group called Fix Our Schools and is also soliciting the support of stakeholder associations such as the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) and the Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA). Meana spoke to TCA president and CEO John Mollenhauer on July 13 as he started to ramp up lobbying.
We want to return to some level of normalcy, but we also have to do so in the safest manner possible,
— Giovanni Cautillo
Ontario General Contractors Association
“I understand completely,” Mollenhauer said later. “It is one of the many challenges we have to deal with that are COVID-related that has a significant impact on the construction sector.
“What we can’t do is tell workforces in the construction sector they can work from home three days a week and they can come in to work two days a week or vice versa because that is the way our school system is going to work for the foreseeable future. It creates a challenge that is seemingly insurmountable for our workforce.”
Mollenhauer said the solution was to send the whole matter back to the provincial cabinet to find a way to make five days of in-person learning work.
“Ford is capable of striking a balance between what the medical officers of Ontario are telling him, not to put people in harm’s way any more than necessary, and the economy’s need to get back to work,” he said, referring to Premier Doug Ford. “We can’t afford not to get back to work.”
OGCA president Giovanni Cautillo said he had not yet talked to Meana but he was aware of the issue. He said remote learning is no substitute for learning in classrooms but safety must not be jeopardized.
“We want to return to some level of normalcy, but we also have to do so in the safest manner possible,” said Cautillo. “That is why the government is making such a concerted effort to start it up in stages. They have seen that other countries who have opened too quickly have suffered consequences. They have had flare-ups and have had to return to a shutdown.
“I am not against the idea but not in lieu of safety.”
Meana said there is urgency to retrofitting schools to accommodate different configurations of students and perhaps converting non-school spaces into classroom spaces, just as was done early in the pandemic to add to hospital capacity. The construction sector is capable of jumping right in immediately to fit-out classrooms, he said.
But typical Toronto District School Board procurement procedures will have to be bypassed, Meana said.
“We don’t have time for that,” he remarked. “Let’s get contractors together, prequalified, and everything will be open book, with transparency. It is for the common good.
“The time is now. In the short term, there is impact to parents, but the long-term impact, this is going to be a year or two before they get a vaccine. It concerns me that we are looking ahead a year or possibly two of dealing with this.”
Fix Our Schools has drawn up a 30-point plan proposing protocols and school-transformation measures that should be undertaken.
“There is a whole group of consultants and contractors, we could bring ideas together in fast-track fashion, get the points down, and let’s make sure they happen in the next seven or eight weeks. It’s a call to arms, kind of thing,” said Meana.
He and Mollenhauer both said there are social imperatives that make getting students back in school full time a priority. Students will suffer mental health declines if schools are out much longer, Meana said. Mollenhauer pointed to research suggesting children’s immunity suffers when they are kept out of public spaces for long periods.
But a key argument for the TCA executive related to the needs of the construction sector.
“You can’t build a building sitting on a lawn chair in a back patio,” Mollenhauer said. “Our workforce works five or six days a week, probably six days a week to catch up for time for the four or five months lost for projects that demobilized.
“However you look at it, there is no working from home a little bit.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.