The Ontario government is allegedly looking at making the option of remote learning permanent for all boards across the province moving forward.
Virtual learning was first implemented in response to climbing COVID-19 numbers in an effort to curb spread and keep staff and students safe amid the pandemic. Schools have been closed to in-person learning several times since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.
The consideration to make the option permanent stems from a document from the Ministry of Education that was shared with various education groups, according to a report first published by The Globe and Mail.
“If introduced and passed, beginning in September, 2021, parents would continue to have the ability to enroll their child in full-time synchronous remote learning if they choose going forward. School boards would also be required to provide students with remote learning on snow days and in the event of an emergency that results in a school closure,” the document read.
Global News has not independently confirmed the contents of the documents. However both the presidents of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) confirmed they had staff attend a meeting with the ministry on Monday where the idea was discussed.
ETFO President Harvey Bischoff told Global News the creation of a standalone infrastructure by TVO for secondary school online courses was also brought up.
“It involves TVO being a registration point for students who want to take online courses,” he told Global News, adding TVO would also be “tasked with coming up with the only learning resources,” similar to a curriculum.
Bischoff called the idea “curious” as there are “school boards full of educators with lots of experience, why would you move that function elsewhere?”
He also pointed to a leaked document from the ministry last year which spoke of maximizing revenue generation from the provincial school system.
Bischoff said the plan with TVO comes with “a real risk that that would be sold off to the highest bidder at some point in an effort to prioritize the education system.”
When reached for comment from Global News, a spokesperson for the Minister of Education Stephen Lecce highlighted how critical online learning has been for students during the pandemic.
“We continue to consult and engage with stakeholders on maintaining this choice for parents and ensuring its availability this September,” said Caitlin Clark. “The budget delivers additional investments in strengthening the online learning system, as well as a significant boost in broadband funding for families and schools across Ontario.”
The Ontario 2021 budget released Wednesday said the province was investing $40 million toward bettering online/virtual learning over the next two years.
Lecce then told reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday the province will release a decision as to how online learning could be implemented into the education system moving forward in the coming weeks.
“I believe so strongly that keeping schools open is fundamental to their (student’s) health and to their wellness, but I also believe parents will make the best decisions for their children. Right now we’re consulting with a variety of partners in education to get their perspective on how we can potentially create a system that is safe, but also provides parents the choice that I think Ontarians benefited from this past September,” Lecce said.
“We’re trying to mitigate learning loss. We’re trying to understand how can we use the strengths of online learning either as a back stop or a primary choice for those parents who choose it to ensure a child’s continuity of learning is protected,” Lecce said, referencing snow days and other possible school disruptions.
Meanwhile, the ETFO called the idea an “attack on public education” Thursday morning.
“We see this quite frankly as another step in the conservative playbook to erode bit by bit publicly funded public education in this province,” President Sam Hammond told Global News. “It is extremely puzzling when you have every education stakeholder, medical experts, the premier and the ministry of education himself saying for months and months the best learning environment for students, the best place for them to be in terms of their social, their emotional, mental health well-being in is a classroom.
“And suddenly they’re suggesting they’re going to change a world class publicly funded education system by introducing permanent virtual learning — something that was meant to be a short-term solution during the pandemic,” he continued.
Bischoff echoed Hammond’s sentiments.
“It’s been clear that a face-to-face learning environment is best for the vast majority of students and we’ve had the education minister repeat that over and over again throughout the pandemic,” he said. “And yet at the same time, he’s making it a ministerial priority to create this other option.
“I can’t reconcile the minister’s two contradictory positions that, a) face-to-face learning is so important and b) we’re going to create an option where you’re not engaged in it,” Bischoff continued.
Hammond said the union wishes the government would sit down with all stakeholders to have “meaningful consultation with input, evaluation and discussions” on not only this issue but several others.
“They’ve failed to do that or are refusing to do that once again,” he said.
In a statement Thursday morning, the ETFO referenced a report by Toronto’s SickKids’ hospital in January entitled “COVID-19: Guidance for School Operation during the Pandemic” which highlighted the benefit of in-school learning for students in regard to socialization, education and mental health.
“Full-time remote learning is insufficient to meet the needs of the majority of Ontario children and youth, leads to increased screen time and is likely detrimental to overall health,” the report said.
“The daily in-person school model is best for the educational and developmental needs of children as it allows for consistency, stability and equity, regardless of the region in which children and youth live.”
NDP leader Andrea Horwath questioned the Ford government on education cuts at Question Period Thursday morning, saying the budget “confirmed yesterday, we’re going to be seeing more cuts to schools.”
However, Minister of Finance Peter Bethlenfalvy refuted the sentiment and said the budget showed increased education spending.
“We’ve heard from parents and people right across the province that the most important thing is to bring our children back to school safely. We invested $1.6 billion to do that and they’re very grateful for that,” Bethlenfalvy said
He went on to say the government is “making sure students can be safely in school” and referenced the money the budget earmarked for remote learning.
“We’ve put in additional money so they can learn online, remotely, and in underserved communities because there is nothing worse than in a lockdown doing your school online and the bandwidth isn’t there. So we’re making historic record investment into broadband so we can connect every single student in this province,” he said.
As of Thursday morning, Ontario government figures show there have been a total of 11,840 school-related COVID-19 cases in Ontario to date — 8,617 among students and 1,909 among staff (1,156 individuals were not identified).
—With files from Matthew Bingley