The Ontario government failed to consider independent schools when it distributed millions of dollars to help schools reopen safely, according to a lawsuit filed by Toronto Cheder, Metropolitan Preparatory Academy and Woodland Christian High School.

The three independent schools, represented by lawyers Aaron Rosenberg and David Elmaleh, appeared in court Monday to challenge the provincial government’s allocation of federal COVID-19 funding. 

The independent schools are taking issue with the Safe Return to Class Fund – a $763 million dollar program provided by the federal government to assist schools in their reopenings after being shuttered by the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“The government isn’t required to fund private schools, but it has to consider the health and safety of all schools in the province,” Elmaleh argued Monday.

He went on to say that this is not just about keeping private schools open but keeping them safe as well.

“There should be no distinction between private and public schools when it comes to protecting teachers and students.”

Like public and Catholic schools in Ontario, independent schools were also forced to suspend in-person learning during the pandemic. While Elmaleh didn’t fault the government for its handling of the pandemic, he argued that independent schools took on additional expenses as a result of the lockdowns.

Jewish human rights organization B’nai Brith Canada is an intervenor in the lawsuit in support of independent schools. One of the lawyers representing B’nai Brith, Tommy Gelbman challenged the Ontario government by accusing them of applying the same standards during unprecedented times as they do to normal times.

The Ontario government argued that there is no historical precedent for the government to fund private education and that the prerogative of the government was to ensure that public schools receive the money to stay afloat. 

“When parents enroll their children in private schools, they are effectively opting out of public funding,” one of the province’s lawyers said.

Every parent in Ontario must pay taxes to either their local public school board or their local catholic school board regardless of if their children are enrolled in private schools. 

In Ontario, the estimated student population from kindergarten to grade 12 is two million students. Of that two million, approximately 150,000 school-aged students are enrolled in independent schools. Oftentimes these independent schools are catered toward more religious education.

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Harrison Faulkner is producer and journalist for True North based in Toronto.

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