Educators in a dangerous time

Three independent Ontario schools challenge province over COVID relief funds.

Independent schools in Ontario are hurting from the lack of public funding for COVID 19 relief. To keep their students safe, individual schools are footing the bill – where they are able.

That’s why Woodland Christian High School in Breslau, Ontario, is part of a group of three independent schools taking the Ontario government to court over the funding denied independent schools during the ongoing pandemic. The other schools in the suit are Toronto Cheder – an Orthodox Jewish day school – and Metropolitan Preparatory Academy – a non-denominational school.

The two-billion-dollar “Safe Return to Class Fund” was announced in the summer of 2020 as part of a raft of pandemic support offered by the federal government. The amount was determined based on the number of students between four and 18 years old – regardless of their enrollment status as public or private. But even though the province included independent school students in the tally used to determine the allotment of Ontario’s $763 million dollars in federal funding, the independent schools received none of those funds.

Independent schools number around 1,500 province-wide, make up 25 percent of all Ontario schools and serve approximately 150,000 students. But the province argues that because independent schools are not regulated by the Ministry of Education, they have no “legal right” to the funds.

“We were happy to participate [in the suit],” John VanPelt, principal of Woodland Christian High School, told CC, “because our repeated questions to the Ontario Government regarding the costs related to the COVID health crisis were completely ignored. The current situation . . . impacts all Ontario students, regardless of where they attend school. A legal challenge provides one of the few avenues for challenging assumptions and policy decisions.”

If independent Christian schools cannot front the funds needed for the unanticipated cost of COVID adaptations, it is the children and youth in our communities – already made vulnerable on a slew of levels by the pandemic – who suffer most.

Recognizing Opportunities for Transformation

My dad, who recently passed away, enjoyed a lifelong career as principal of Maxey Boys’ Training School inside a maximum-security prison for juvenile offenders near Ann Arbor, Michigan. As a child, I sometimes accompanied him to work. From behind the never-ending stacks of papers on his desk he recited stories, mostly myths, to keep me engaged. Most vividly, I remember the story of Pandora’s box, the big container of misery unleashed by a person driven, despite the risk, to follow her curiosity.

I recall my dad’s patience as I attempted to guess what, under all the brokenness, might be at the bottom of that box. If you know the myth, you know the big reveal is somewhat abstract. Beneath a hot mess of evil and entropy, is, finally, hope.


What did that mean, exactly?

My dad was an educator to his very core. He remained endlessly invigorated by the opportunities he was given – or created – to expand the educational horizons of the students in his care. In the face of inadequate funding, my dad procured a grant that allowed him to purchase Commodore computers. Suddenly his at-risk students had a resource that not even the public schools yet had – something that would set them apart, catapult them into a brighter future.

My dad necessarily dealt in imbalances and inequalities – his students were victims of a society in which basic needs like food and housing remained inequitably distributed across lines of race and class. My dad’s life’s work was to try, against all odds, to even the score for these kids, to transmute a punitive situation into a transformational one.

As an educator, my dad, like Pandora, trusted his curiosity to lead him toward new ways of thinking. Similarly, I wonder how we might reimagine what it means to set ourselves apart. How our schools might lead the way in profoundly forward-thinking, sustainable educational practices and spaces. The time to follow our curiosity in service of our students is now.

Collaboration in Real Time

While independent schools advocate in court, the actual children themselves are learning and playing – some of them in poorly ventilated classrooms with scant access to the resources needed to ensure their health and wellbeing. Certainly, we can wait – until the funding comes, until the directives are in place, until the pandemic ends. We can wait, or we can collaborate.

In my experience as a high school teacher in two of Ontario’s independent Christian schools and now as a parent, I can say with confidence that the administrators, teachers and staff – as well as the parents and supporting community members – are some of the most industrious, indefatigable and devoted folks I’ve met.

Collaboration implies communication. I don’t have a solution, and that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing to begin the conversation – one that I hope continues here, in the pages of CC, and hopefully also in staff rooms, washrooms, boardrooms, teacher’s conventions, school newsletters and across media. We need a robust and organized method for pooling our resources across institutions in a way as yet unfathomed.

cartoon about bad air quality in schools
(Cagle Cartoons)

Open the Windows

My dad knew he was walking into a broken system before he began the work. Had he waited for opportunities to arise from the ether, he would have spent his entire career waiting, while his students’ prospects perished for lack of funding. For my dad, taking action meant long meetings, lots of advocating, and hours of late-night grant-writing to secure the resources he knew would change the lives of his students.

Mercifully, our solutions may be even more simple. We can fundraise for medical-grade air purifiers. Boldly approach established donors for sizable funds to be distributed province-wide across our Christian schools, an emergency response in this moment of crisis – and thoughtful preparation for the next one. We can rally community members with HVAC experience to investigate our schools’ ventilation systems. Seek out unconventional funding sources for the resources to improve them. This is just the beginning.

When God closes one door, so they say, God opens a window. It’s about recognizing opportunity in the guise of limitation – our chance to breathe fresh air into limited ideas about what it means to educate and care for our children. It’s about ventilation – metaphorical and literal. Many of the old doors have slammed shut. So together, let’s open the windows. Open all of them.

Across Canada

In some provinces where independent Christian schools are set up to receive government funding overseen by the Ministry of Education, pandemic funding was also available. Darren Spyksma, Director of Learning for the Society of Christian Schools in B.C., says that independent schools in his province did receive some COVID relief.

How are Christian schools weathering COVID in your area? Email ac.reiruocnaitsirhc@rotide to help us find out more or to share tips & stories.


  • Katie Hoogendam

    Katie is a writer, educator and mom and works in communications and sustainability. She attended nine different public schools K-12 and both private Christian and public universities.

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