Ontario’s school reopen plan is in trouble, and it’s not because the plan itself is terrible. I actually think the plan makes sense, but I am not a scientist. However, we once again find ourselves stuck on this science/politics nexus, and it’s eating away at the plan and its roll out.

During the pandemic, we have had this habit of listening to the science. We even celebrated the fact that politicians put their partisanship aside because they were following the advice of their top scientists and public health minds instead of political expediency. This school reopen plan followed that same idea with an even higher degree of vigilance.

As I wrote before, there are a few problems with elevating scientists to decision-maker, which is normally the politician’s job.  The first is that the science is often in a state of flux. Toronto Sick Kids came out with a report. It had a fair hearing. The government followed with its plan that closely followed the science – they claimed anyway. But, after that, it was a cascade of people denouncing the government action. Some of it based on science. Some of it based on what people thought the science said. All sorts of ideas, realistic and otherwise, started popping up all over the place by people we hadn’t heard before, but no matter who they were, it only mattered what they said. And, damn it, what they said better have conformed to how we felt or else they weren’t experts at all. Suddenly, the average person on the street became public health expert – champion of their own domain.

You see, it’s not just the scientists’ expertise that matter here. Teachers are expert at teaching, and parents are expert at parenting, and you can’t tell a teacher or a parent that they don’t know what’s best for their students or children, right? And, let’s not forget that other scientists might say something else entirely.

This is exactly where we’ve ended up – some scientists on one side, and the other experts and scientists on the other. The science says one thing, the other ‘experts’ say something else, and what you have left are political decisions. Our politicians pick which experts to listen to and we judge them on those choices.

If you’ve been following this, Minister Lecce first said students should be learning hybrid. Then, parents lost their gaskets at the thought that they’d have to miss weeks of work to be home with their kids. So, the government signaled full day reopen, and parents and teachers lost their gasket. However, the government’s big mistake is that they never presented it as a binary choice. Parents could have small classes if the classes were divided by 2 and students came every other day. Or, kids could come every day and class sizes would remain unchanged. The political decision remains at that point of convergence, but the science defence was used rather than the trade off.

Now we have teachers, their federations and some parents say that it is unsafe to have classes of more than 15, which is not, of course, verified by science. There isn’t a number. Classroom space is variable and the whole bit. Teachers also don’t want hybrid teaching. The only option, in their view, is full day every day class capped at 15 students. It’s eating cake and having it too. It’s also not very realistic.

So, the next time you wonder why government is not following the science, remember this school reopen debacle. Scientists are good at science. Social scientists ought to be good at how people perceive public policy.