Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) student Kathy Nguyen is in disbelief that she and her fellow students have to worry about school uniforms this year.
The student trustee says for weeks she has been hearing from students about their financial struggles in light of COVID-19.
“We are in a pandemic now and I think the least important thing to police right now is the clothing that we wear,” Nguyen says.
“I think we should focus on the mental health (of) our students, because it’s been a rough seven months.”
Student trustees petitioned the school board to relax the uniform enforcement policy.
They say the financial pressures from COVID-19 have been tough for families and many continue to struggle.
Stephen Chiu, a Grade 11 student with the Catholic board, says this is his reality.
“I had a parent that lost a job and it’s quite difficult to keep going through these months.”
The motion to relax the rules around uniforms initially passed at a board meeting in early September.
However, in a matter of days, the motion was rescinded.
The school board decided uniforms were mandatory once again.
Student trustee Keith Baybayon heard from several students after the decision was reversed.
Many of them were worried about how to get a uniform in time for the start of school.
“I had a lot of students reaching out to me, one specifically said, ‘I don’t have the money for (a) uniform, and it’s only two days left… what am I supposed to do?’”
Baybayon said he felt helpless that the only thing he could do was to refer them to their respective schools’ administration.
Other student advocates say the board’s decision will affect some students more than others.
Stephen Mensah is the education lead for the Toronto Youth Cabinet.
“BIPOC individuals are disproportionately affected by this virus. We also see that it has worsened the social and economic inequities that exist,” Mensah says. “It leaves them to choose between putting food on the table, paying rent or buying their child a uniform to send them to school.”
The full price for a uniform varies between schools. Families say the costs can add up quickly. According to McCarthy Uniforms, the supplier for most schools, a blazer starts at about $130, dress pants $55, a kilt $90, and students still have to add shirts and shoes on top of that.
Trustees say they decided to revisit the idea because of feedback they received.
They say there are programs that can assist students if they are having difficulties.
“The manufacturer often gives coupons, helps out with the price,” board chair Joseph Martino said in an interview with Global News. “We have the angel fund that also contributes to needy kids that might need help in purchasing the uniforms, and they can go the principal.”
Other trustees who supported the initial motion to relax the rules say the idea had a lot of merit.
Trustee Norm Di Pasquale says he knows many people can’t afford the expense of a uniform this year.
He also understands the position of families who have already spent the money and had the clothes altered for their students.
“This would have been an ideal year to consider this,” Di Pasquale says. “I want to try and support families as much as possible and my idea this year is to lead with equity.”
Student leaders say they feel defeated that this change could not go forward as they had hoped.
“There are not enough resources for everyone,” Baybayon says. “What makes our Catholic school special is the students, not what they wear but what they stand for their Catholic values.