Monday, 25 August 2014

Snow days mean hunger as school role grows

I am more than a little surprised the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario wants schools to close entirely on snow days.

We know a lot about snow days here in Grey - Bruce. We have a lot of snow up here and we have schools both in our towns and in rural areas. We are no strangers to snow day announcements on the radio and more recently in social media.

As a parent, I have lived through the times when my kids would ask me if there was any chance of a snow day the night before a storm. My stock answer was "We will see in the morning."

There were days when we wondered about sending the kids to school if the schools were open or whether we should just let them stay home.

I understand the perspective of the ETFO. I get it when they wonder why teachers are required to report for work when school buses aren’t running. I understand the risks of driving on snow-covered roads and the prudence required in driving to and from work in a snowstorm. I know a teaching colleague was killed last year near Peterborough while driving to work on a snow day.

But I also think the ETFO hasn’t thought this through completely. It’s not just about teachers and driving and buses. It’s also about students and hunger and poverty.

I didn’t realize the connection until I read of discussions, remarkably similar to the conversation in Ontario, happening in the Lake Erie snow belt region of Ohio.

Schools there and in other snow belt areas of the US are beginning to realize that closing a school on a snow day has a real impact on students, their families and on hunger.

In the US there are many food programs for low income families delivered through schools. These may be breakfast programs or hot lunch meals provided at no cost or reduced cost. There are also sacks of nutritious foods available for students to take home.

What the schools found was that breakfast at the school and the nutritious, hot lunch were the only food the children were eating all day. Their families did not have enough food available to them to prevent hunger. If the schools closed for snow days, those children went hungry.

Why?

Families struggling to pay heating bills did not have enough money left for food.

Do we have similar issues in Ontario and right here in Grey - Bruce?

Yes.

I recall being in the office of the principal of one of our local high schools and noticing a box on his desk with granola bars and bags of dried fruit. I asked what it was there for.

"It’s for students," the principal replied. "We found a lot of kids came to school with no breakfast. When we dug deeper we found that they simply didn’t have enough food at home. So we put together this program. Every teacher has a box on their desk. Everyone is welcome to take what they need. It’s made a difference in learning attention, especially around lunch time."

Child poverty and child hunger are very real issues in Canada and in Grey-Bruce. According to the charity Breakfast for Learning, one in six or one million Canadian children face hunger every year. 15% of Canadian children live below the poverty line. That number jumps to a horrific 40% among aboriginal children.

In addition, 31% of elementary school aged children don’t eat a healthy breakfast and an astonishing 62% of high school aged young people don’t eat a healthy breakfast before school at all.

I hope the ETFO will think their request through more deeply.

While teachers have a right to be safe while driving to work, until we address the issues of food security and child poverty in our community their request comes across as somewhat less than thoughtful. Perhaps the responsibility is more on the school boards to review their own snow day policies, taking all those affected into account. For the kids who are hungry that is only fair.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.