Schools set dates to transition from virtual to in-person learning — but is this legal?

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As coronavirus cases continue to climb across Canada, parents have opted for their children to attend virtual schooling instead of in-person.

While some schools only offer in-person learning, others allow students to learn virtually from home.

But what happens if a parent decides virtual learning is no longer possible?

Many schools offer certain dates to transition from online to in-person schooling as a way to safely bring kids back into the classroom. But some experts say having specified dates to make the switch may not be legal.

“A child has a right to attend a school at any given time,” said Monika Ferenczy, an educational consultant and retired teacher living in Ottawa. “Legally, the schools need to take a child any time when the parents bring them in because it is a public service.”

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Ontario’s back-to-school plan gave parents the option to keep kids out of the classroom and have them learn from home, with materials provided by their schools.

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The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said it recognizes parents or guardians may want to switch between in-person learning and virtual. But, “for health and safety reasons, and because of the impact switching would have on staffing, physical distancing and space allocation, it will not be possible to immediately transition between the two models.”

Because of this, the TDSB set specified dates for elementary students to make the switch — Oct. 13, Nov. 23 and Feb. 16.

In an email to Global News, a spokesperson from the TDSB said families would be only able to transition at the specified dates, with “few exceptions.”

Alberta also offers an online option for school. The Calgary Board of Education said if a student wishes to return to in-person classes, the date to do so is Feb. 1, 2021.

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British Columbia also offers in-person as well as virtual learning.

The Vancouver School board said parents can choose to switch during three “re-entry points,” which are Oct. 13, Nov. 9 and Jan. 5, 2021.

“Opportunities to visit the school and participate in some activities will be provided and encouraged to maintain connections for students and support a positive re-entry to in-person learning for them,” a spokesperson told Global News in an email.

Ontario, Alberta and B.C.’s ministries of education told Global News it is up to individual school boards to establish these dates.

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The right to education

Ferenczy said the different “entry points” school boards have created is causing anxiety among parents she’s talked with, as “the first two to three weeks is when parents really will know if virtual learning is working.”

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Parents and guardians may have a situation that arises that causes them to have to switch from virtual to in-person, she said.

For example, if a family moves to another province and they need to put their child back in school because of work, they could be denied because this missed the entry date, she said. She argued that the school cannot force the parent to enroll their child in a virtual school program.

A parent could “absolutely” challenge this policy, Ferenczy added.

John P. Schuman, a Toronto lawyer specializing in family law, said school boards will probably have a hard time refusing to admit a child who wishes to go back to in-person learning, although doing so may cause chaos in terms of resources, especially where the available classrooms are already full.

He pointed to Ontario’s Education Act as an example, which states that a “person has a right … to attend a school.”

“With that said, section 19 of the Education Act allows boards to close schools or classes in schools due to inclement weather and other emergencies. Boards have obviously done that,” he said.

Because COVID-19 has created unprecedented circumstances, the school district may be within its right to issue the transition dates, according to Hamilton-based labour and employment lawyer Sarah Molyneaux.

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“The boards are empowered to create rules and policies to reasonably manage health and safety for kids and staff,” she said.

However, she acknowledged there may be circumstances that allow flexibility in the dates.

“Students whose parents aren’t able to cope with learning from home because of a learning disability, and they realized it’s not an appropriate tool for the child to learn. You could imagine there will be exceptions here. But for parents who are just uneasy, that’s harder for them because of sanitization and resource issues.”

As the school year presses on, Molyneaux said she expects she will be getting calls from parents about this.

“I think they are being put between a rock and a hard place,” she said.


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