We’re months into the school year amid COVID-19 and the failure of the Ontario government to do what it takes to guarantee a safe reopening continues to impact the quality of education that students are receiving.
How did we get here?
Facing a global COVID-19 pandemic that closed schools and impacted the learning of 1.5 billion students, Ontario had finally announced the extension of emergency remote instruction and confirmed closures would remain in place until September.
They promised a reopening plan by the end of June, but the plan arrived a month late, with insufficient consultation with stakeholders tasked with enacting the plan.
With the exception of designated secondary schools, all elementary and non-designated secondary schools were required to deliver conventional in-person learning as well as synchronous online learning for parents who opted-out of the conventional system.
Not only were school boards expected to organize online education at an unprecedented scale in one month, they were also expected to organize re-entry for students who wanted to transition between online and in-person learning throughout the school year.
Inequities in online education
Most school boards in the province hurtled to set up temporary virtual schools and learn-at-home programs to accommodate the demand for online education, which was as high as 30% in urban school boards at greater risk of COVID-19.
Since Black and other racialized communities that face greater health inequities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, they opted out of the conventional system at higher rates than white families living in neighbourhoods with fewer case counts. This pandemic was deepening socio-economic and racial inequalities already in our education system.
Facing decades of underfunding in public education, coupled with the Ontario government’s failure to invest in a safe reopening that inspired public confidence, frustrated school boards depleted their reserves and struggled to staff online education.
The pressure proved too great. Upper Canada District School Board was the first reported to meet the synchronous remote learning requirement by live-streaming teachers in conventional classrooms. The board assured parents that it wouldn’t be like “reality tv,” but in the United States, where it is increasingly common to teach virtually and in-person simultaneously, teachers referred to it as an “instructional nightmare.”
I wrote an open letter to the board in response to the danger of setting this precedent in Ontario, which flew in the face of effective pedagogy. It is shocking that school boards were demanding teachers meet the needs of online and in-person students, both of which require full-time attention and instruction specific to their modality.
Although the school board acknowledged this proposal was a response to their inability to fund virtual school, which was projected to cost a minimum $19.5 million, they had an obligation to provide virtual learners with an education consistent with students attending in-person.
The K-12 system was quickly coming to learn what postsecondary institutions have long known: It costs more to educate students online than in-person.
Of course the danger of setting bad precedent is that others followed, normalizing a dysfunctional learning model. A month after unsustainable timetabling that saw teachers and students revolving in and out of classrooms between in-person and virtual school, school boards took the path set by Upper Canada DSB: York Catholic DSB, followed by Dufferin-Peel Catholic DSB and Peel DSB. The Toronto DSB downloaded responsibility to local schools, who were tasked to respond to an “untenable” expansion of virtual schools. Among four models offered, the most “tenable” are concurrent classrooms.
The reality of concurrent classrooms
Concurrent classrooms are not a novel innovation emerging out of a pandemic; they are the direct result of a failing plan for online education, the demand for which is driven by a lack of investment in a safe school reopening.
Necessary funding has not followed the mandate for online education, as a necessary response to the threat in-person learning poses for many students. And despite school boards touting its benefits, which attempts to quell the anger of parents who have organized against this model, the reality belies their claims: overwhelmed teachers set up to fail, persistent technical problems, and poor learning conditions—especially for virtual students who are often left hanging while in-person students command the attention of teachers.
Students under the age of consent are especially vulnerable to corporate surveillance, and concurrent classrooms put the privacy of children at risk. School boards typically mitigate this risk by limiting visibility of online students to the teacher, which requires a stationary position or proximity to a microphone while sharing the lesson on the screen.
Concurrent classrooms restrict teachers from differentiating instruction and integrating inquiry learning with direct instruction. It also interferes with professional judgment, preventing teachers from delivering programming that will best meet a diverse range of students’ needs and fulfill the legal requirements of Individual Education Plans.
Experts are calling concurrent classes a resource-based decision, a massive social experiment, and a bad model of delivery that provides virtual students with a second-class education.
Labour unions are demanding school boards back off from impossible demands, which are inequitable, an intrusion into the privacy of students, and a “direct result of the Ford government’s lack of planning and funding for a safe school reopening.”
While adults with the power to make decisions are deferring and downloading responsibility, it is ultimately students who will pay the price.
Eroding trust in public education
No matter how idealistic we are about the potential of public education to promote democratic principles and deliver social benefits, its future depends on the trust of families who depend on the system to care for their children.
No doubt, we are failing Black and Indigenous students, disabled students, and students confronting economic poverty.
The failure to plan a safe school reopening has not only driven the demand for online education, but also the failing response of school boards with concurrent classrooms.
Failing to meet the needs of students in a public system during a moment that calls for bold vision and desperately needed investment sets us on a well travelled path to privatization. We would be well served to heed the warning.
Beyhan Farhadi is a postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Education at York University, currently studying the relationship between education policy, online learning, and equity during COVID-19. She is also a secondary teacher at the Toronto District School Board, with a decade of online teaching experience. Her research and teaching practice intersect with her advocacy for a fully-funded public education system.