Where are our careers going in light of education and health care cuts?

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Andrea Aguiar had just finished her last exam of high school. She stayed behind for a little, chatting with her favourite English teacher about school ending. Aguiar’s English teacher said something then that solidified her dreams of becoming a teacher—a dream she’s had since the age of 13. “You know what, Andrea? I feel like you could do my job better than I can.”  

“Not only did that make me laugh, but then I thought, ‘You know what, if he’s saying it, maybe I can,’” said Aguiar.

Aguiar’s dream started with teachers at her high school who motivated her. Those who made her excited to speak up in class and want to stay behind to talk about the readings. Those who could put in the extra time to make her feel valued.

Now the third-year English student worries that she won’t have the same opportunity to connect with future high school students. Aguiar never doubted her dreams of going to teacher’s college—until the provincial government’s cuts to education were announced earlier this year. 

Ontario public schools will lose approximately 10,000 teachers over the next five years as a result of the Ford government’s plans to increase classroom sizes and introduce mandatory online classes, said financial accountability officer Peter Weltzman to the CBC.

“I reconsidered [pursuing teaching] a lot, which I hate saying, because I know that it is something that I want to do,” Aguiar says. As the extent of the changes to the education system became known, Aguiar wondered if there was a place for her in teaching. 

The people in education and healthcare share two very important things—they are trying to take care of us and the provincial governments’ cuts are making it more complicated for them to do so. Students going into education and healthcare are more uncertain of their futures. 

Tomas Hudson remembers the jarring combination of smells. Bad mouth odour and body odour from patients who had not been able to brush their teeth or shower, rubbing alcohol and blood, but also the constant smell of coffee and donuts wafting from the nurses’ station. There was the frantic morning rush, the moment of lull in the afternoon. Then there was hitting a brick wall of exhaustion at the end of a 12-hour shift, only to turn around and wake up for a lecture on the intricacies of anatomy the next day. 

Nursing is a tiring and demanding job—and the provincial governments’ cuts to health care will only make it more difficult for nurses to continue working in an already challenging field.

Hudson is a fourth-year nursing student at Ryerson. He did his third-year nursing placement with elementary school children, teaching them everything from how to wash their hands to sensitive conversations about mental health. 

Like the teachers he worked with during placement, Hudson’s field of work is changing.

The Ontario government’s cuts to healthcare include restructuring of public hospital funding, cuts to ambulance services, cancellation of the pharmacare program for children and adults under 25 and cuts to planned mental health funding by $330 million, according to the Ontario Health Coalition.

The hospital restructuring will merge 20 agencies employing 10,000 people into a single agency called Ontario Health. This means that health facilities that previously received separate funding will now have a single pot of funding for an “Ontario Health Team”—which looks like a local grouping of a hospital, a few long-term care facilities and a few community health clinics that serve a geographic population of 300,000. The revamping will change everything and its effects, both positive and negative, will only become clear in the coming years for both patients and staff.  

The cuts to ambulance services include merging 59 local ambulance services into just 10. The cancellation of the pharma program will affect only those who already have prescriptions covered under private insurance. Instead of the $2.1 billion set up for mental health funding over four years by former premier Kathleen Wynne, Ford reduced it to $1.9 billion over 10 years.

Hudson went into nursing as a way of “giving back to the country.”  He plans to be a nurse in the army. 

“Every nursing student that I know is a machine of empathy,” Hudson says. “That’s why I really like this program—because I feel the people here are the people that are maybe going to be taking care of you or me, or maybe a family member. So you know they’re in good hands.” 

While Hudson and his peers work to take care of sick people, the largest cuts are to the branch of healthcare that takes care of people before they get sick. 

There are plans to cut the public health budget by $200 million and consolidate the number of public health units from 35 to 10. Public Health Units are responsible for everything from disease prevention and immunization to water quality testing. 

Fatih Sekercioglu is an expert in Public Health policy at Ryerson who has been working in the field for 10 years. He says public health restructuring to this extent has never happened. Sekercioglu was working in management at a public health unit when the cuts were announced, and he hasn’t heard anything for months about what the restructuring will look like.

“To the best of our knowledge, there was nothing, no meetings of any kind.”

According to the Ontario Health Coalition, there will be a huge shift from the provincial to the municipal level for public health programs. Municipalities will be forced to cover 30 per cent of all their public health costs, with Toronto Public Health being proportionately hit the hardest at what the city has calculated as $1 billion over the next 5 years.

“I’m constantly reminded of the fact that nothing’s really getting better because of these cuts”

While most of the plan remains unknown until April, Sekercioglu’s main concern is that a lack of consultation could leave public health units without enough resources and leave gaps in the system. “When everything is well, no one seems to question why everything’s going well,” he says.

Hudson says he thinks the cuts are wrong.  “Cutting off never really helps the problem,” he says. “There’s no cost to life.” 

Part of the cuts is restructuring hospitals. For Hudson, his past placements in hospitals have been difficult due to working long hours with short staffing.

Getting a job is one challenge, but keeping it is another, Hudson says. He worked 12-hour shifts while attending classes. For nurses, it’s common to have 12-hour shifts throughout the night and throughout the day in the span of the same week—but these rotating shifts can be draining and disorienting. According to Hudson, it’s also common for nursing students to have at least one bad experience feeling attacked and “chewed up” by a working nurse.

“They’ve grown sick and tired. I don’t blame them, it’s hard. It’s a hard job. There’s a lot of burnout and turnover rate. That’s why there’s a lot of jobs, supposedly, but now with Ford doing this thing, I’m not even sure what’s going on.”

There is still a lot unknown about the full impact of the cuts for both prospective nurses and education workers. And if the narrowly avoided education workers’ strike is any indication, the ups-and-downs resulting from the cuts are far from over. 

AnnMarie Said was supervising children at a youth centre when a young girl came skipping across the basketball court toward her and her coworker. Said is doing her placement as a child and youth care worker at a nonprofit youth centre. She is in child and youth care at Sheridan College and wants to work in high schools.

Said remembers the young girl’s eagerness to find out when a new brother-sister program was starting at the youth centre. 

“It was the first thing she asked us when she walked in because she was really excited.”

Said and her co-worker tried to be hopeful, but they didn’t want to give the girl hope. They didn’t know when the program would be starting, or even if it would. The youth centre used to run 15 community programs. Now, because of the cuts, Said said they are struggling to run just seven because of lack of resources and funding. 

As a result of the cuts the youth centre is revamping from the “very bottom to top again”—and the kids can tell. Said says she can sense their hurt. 

There’s unmistakable frustration in her voice when she talks about the changes, but not for her own sake. Her frustration is fiercely protective. 

“[The government is] making these decisions behind desks and a closed building but they don’t see the harm that’s happening to the youth,” Said says. “I’m constantly reminded of the fact that nothing’s really getting better because of these cuts.”

Other members of her program at Sheridan share her frustration. They all wrote letters to the government to voice their concern. 

“We’re all advocates for youth and because we have such a care for them, because we are protective over them and that’s what we’re passionate about. It really does hit home.”

She started her work in child and youth care after she led a church group on a trip. 

“I wasn’t sure that that was something I wanted to do, but by the end of the trip it was everything I wanted to do,” Said says. “I realized how much I loved them and how much I wanted to protect them and make their lives better.” 

Said said she’s fearful for her own job prospects after graduation, but when asked if she would consider changing careers because of the cuts, she is firm in her decision to be a child and youth care worker.

On top of community programs, students are seeing fewer course options and their elective courses cut. The Ontario Teachers’ Federation expressed concern that art courses and classes that typically have a small number of students will not run because of the cuts, according to Chatelaine

Colleen Machado knew the student at her placement was not getting the support he needed at home, so she “took him under [her] wing.”  Every time there was an individual assignment, she brought him beside her desk to help with each question. He would stay behind whenever the students had free time. Machado remembers her student’s excitement when he finally got the math question he was struggling with. Machado said he kept repeating, “Give me another question, give me another question.”

“The fear is definitely coming back to me, and I’m starting to question if I’m going to be able to achieve what I want to achieve as a teacher”

She learned he had a difficult upbringing and that he hadn’t been able to attend several years of elementary school. “He was so motivated to keep going and keep going. Being celebrated really motivated him and he wanted to learn,” said Machado.

Machado is a Ryerson sociology graduate and is in her second and final year of her Bachelor of Education at York University. She always knew she wanted to teach elementary school, ever since her earliest memories of “playing teacher” at three years old. But the instability of job prospects and increased classroom sizes due to the provincial cuts made her fearful. 

“I’m still shaken up and astonished at what Doug Ford is proposing with these cuts. The fear is definitely coming back to me, and I’m starting to question if I’m going to be able to achieve what I want to achieve as a teacher.”

She says it discouraged and saddened her, but above all she was upset for the students. She felt like students were getting punished for something they couldn’t control—especially those who aren’t getting support at home.

“It’s already impossible to provide students with the support that they need. And we have classrooms of 25 to 30, so I would say increasing it is only going to hinder the students and their success,” Machado says. “I legitimately cannot even imagine and don’t even want to think about how it would be if classrooms increase even more. It’s just going to affect the students.”

The mandatory online courses also bring up new challenges for face-to-face interaction with students. As they aren’t limited by space, research points out that administrators may be tempted to fill classes with more students. 

Machado, like Aguiar, is looking to help students in the same way that she felt inspired by her teachers. As difficult as Aguiar feels it would be to give up her dream, she says if job prospects become more difficult because of the cuts, she might have to consider changing paths. 

“I’m going to fall back on this new career that isn’t teaching, and I’ll just never want to go back if I get the opportunity. I feel like that’s happening to a lot of people.”

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