Canadian Electrical Industry News Week

July 19, 2020

Mark ChapeskieBy Mark Chapeskie

As a direct consequence of the economic shutdown due to COVID-19, parents have been asked to balance their children and their careers since the beginning of March. For those working from home, it has been only marginally possible, but it has meant excessively long hours, at-times inadequate childcare, and significant reductions in productivity. Then there are the parents required to be physically present onsite (grocery store attendants, utility workers, healthcare professionals, delivery drivers, education workers, etc.). Without care for their children, these parents simply cannot return to work.

If the various layers of government in Canada intend to re-open the economy, care for children needs to be a cornerstone of that plan. Any plan that includes distance learning will fail, as any parent managing their children’s education can tell you. As we head into the summer, we need to take some time to reflect: what is truly in the best interest of all Canadians?

We need a recovery plan that addresses both the direct consequences of the pandemic, as well as the ongoing shutdown. What about the impact on children, families, and other Canadians whose livelihoods have essentially evaporated overnight? Furthermore, we must acknowledge that Canada is geographically massive and the impacts of COVID-19 have been very different from one region to the next. Applying a one-size-fits all approach would be inappropriate and irresponsible.

When making a decision about return to school in September, the government must consider the following:

1. the impact if parents are asked to work and care for their children, which compromises both their ability to parent and to be productive

2. the mental health of students

3. the mental health of parents

4. students who may be going hungry or facing abuse in the home

5. children with special needs who rely on increased school supports to reach their full potential

6. regional impact of COVID-19 in communities

7. risk of infection to educators and students based on real data and not political rhetoric

We would be remiss if we did not take this opportunity to suggest that many provincial governments are failing to capitalize on a crucial option missing from most re-opening plans: a complete restructuring of the education system. It is time that we acknowledge that our education system is still rooted in the Industrial Revolution, where students were trained to produce widgets and were off in the summers to help with the farm planting and harvest. In 2020, our education system should reflect a modern world with emphasis on the need for certain core skills, but also the ability for customized learning. Furthermore, if smaller class sizes were a priority, return to school in the fall would be a non-issue. This is an opportunity to do the right thing from both an education and public health perspective.

An improved education system would prioritize front-line workers (e.g. teachers, educational assistants, and paramedical support staff to assist children with special needs) over administration. Smaller class sizes would not only reduce the risk of transmission of any infection (as COVID-19 will not be the last), but would also allow educational front-line workers to better customize teaching and help students reach their full potential. And while this may seem outrageous, during COVID-19 we have a lot of empty public space that could be used for additional classrooms while we prepare staff in time for an autumn school start with more teachers, EAs and others to reduce the risk of infection. For days that children aren’t in school or childcare, the options available to parents outside of the controlled school and daycare environments will be ad hoc and significantly increase the risk of infection across the education and childcare community.

It also makes sense to note that in 2019, 63.5% of Canada’s labour force was composed of working parents with children. Of those, 71.3% had children under the age of 6 (that’s 45.3% of the Canadian workforce with children under the age of six).* If schools and daycares do not re-open or only partially re-open in the fall, we’re looking at a significant impact on the availability of labour for the electricity sector. Imagine a scenario where we face several significant adverse weather events that impact a major metropolitan area (or areas). Floods, tornadoes and wildfires are sadly becoming more normal in different regions across the country with good examples from recent history. Imagine if 45% of the workforce was unable to respond to the call to repair power lines or provide regular and reliable maintenance to the grid because they have to make the choice of care for their child or power for their community? We cannot put utility workers in this position.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exactly the opportunity we need for some fundamental and positive structural change to respond to modern workforce realities. And if we don’t see children return to school full-time in the fall (and daycare and afterschool programs), there is absolutely no way the economy will recover as hoped. Furthermore, there are very big risks associated with the next major weather event having a much more significant impact on the grid. At best, the economy will continue to limp along, stagnating or weakening. At worst, we could face a double-whammy: an ongoing pandemic and a blackout for an indeterminate period of time.

Mark Chapeskie is Director of Programs at Electricity Human Resources Canada, and dad to two.

* Statistics Canada, retrieved July 8, 2020; https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1410012001

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