Earlier this week, the principal of a school in Steinbach, Manitoba told his teachers that they were not permitted to talk about COVID-19 and vaccinations, because it was too sensitive of a subject to be discussed in classrooms. The next day, the Premier came out and blamed Manitobans for their inaction in combatting COVID-19, specifically, for failing to get tested, and more crucially, for vaccine hesitancy. The day after that, the Minister of Education made an appalling comment following a question from a Free Press reporter as to why no government official chose to attend a high school classroom’s discussion on proposed changes to the education system. “We don’t think…that the classroom is an appropriate place to discuss government policy and specific proposed legislation”, he said.
Not only are these unfortunate remarks a direct attack on reason and democratic discourse, but it is completely inconsistent with the messaging from the government in the context of the fight against COVID-19. How can we possibly galvanize the understanding and support needed for citizens, especially young people, to take life-saving measures, when the government itself says it is not appropriate to discuss these matters in schools and remains silent rather than voice its objection to the irresponsible and dangerous direction given by school leader in Steinbach.
Along with thousands of other educators, students and parents, I have been on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 in schools for well over a year. We have witnessed the horrible and damaging toll it has taken on the physical and mental well-being of those affected. School can, and must be, part of the solution. That starts by allowing open dialogue.
It is important to note that the type of rationale and excuse offered by the school leader from Steinbach is exactly what Bill 64, the proposed Education Modernization Act seeks to empower. The elected parent council doesn’t believe in COVID-19 or vaccines? No problem, you have a mandate and funding to direct your school to avoid such a discussion.
By this bizarre logic, are student councils and Social Studies departments to stop inviting candidates into classrooms to defend their positions on issues prior to elections where we cast our ballots? Does this mean that we should not engage students or faculty on matters relating to the harms being done to the planet because of climate change? Should we avoid talking to kids about how they can cultivate critical thinking skills that will enable them to make sense of the world through a fair, reasonable, and fact-based lens?
As a student at Kelvin High School, I was blessed to have some incredible educators who encouraged us to wrestle with issues of public policy. There were heated debates at lunch, for example, about a wide-array of topics that I can remember, ranging from the Iraq War, to the Oka Crisis, electoral reform, resource development, and more.
These discussions taught me a great deal about myself, my peers, and the world. It helped me to understand how to listen. That meant not just hearing what someone was saying, but learning how to stop myself from interrupting, and taking the time to check my own biases and pre-conceived notions before responding, as I processed their views. It taught me to value research, and that it was essential to have your facts straight, and drawn from credible sources. I learned how to stand up for what I believed in, and how to challenge those things I felt were wrong or unjust. It gave me the confidence to grow and come to understand the world as a diverse place with many perspectives and values to appreciate. None of these critical aspects of my growth would have occurred without the leadership of those teachers and their commitment to democracy.
The classroom is exactly the place for discussions about public policy and specific legislation to be held. What kind of a future are we trying to create when it is acceptable for school leaders to prevent discussions about life saving vaccines, without objection from the government, on the basis that it is too controversial?
What kind of collective society founded on respect, humility, kindness, and compassion will we be able to foster if schools cannot help young people begin to understand the realities of our world, and their place in it?
How can we prepare our kids for a world full of challenge and hostility, if they are not able to first learn resilience and understanding in safe, supported environments, under the leadership of mentors who care for them?
As an educator, school leader, former social studies teacher, and citizen, I am disheartened and disillusioned by the vision for public education that is being propagated by our government.
I for one, will be encouraging my teachers and students to continue engaging on matters of public policy in the classroom. We will start tomorrow’s discussion by talking about the Education Minister’s comments.
Ben Carr is principal of the Maples Met School