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Online learning means classroom cuts—no matter what students do

Four years of austerity has weakened Ontario’s public education system. COVID-19 and online learning deepen educational inequalities.

May 27, 2022

3-minute read

Prior to the 2018 election, online education was the exception in Ontario public schools, not the rule. But after the election—and even before the pandemic—a manufactured crisis in March 2019 led the Ontario government to make e-learning a graduation requirement for secondary students.

The government’s move to impose mandatory online learning was part of a broader plan to cut millions of dollars out of the public education system by increasing class sizes and reducing funding to the programs and staff that are central to student health and well-being.

Resistance to that plan by parents and students, by education workers and unions, and by community organizers and policy experts certainly helped limit the damage. But it did not entirely stop the government’s plan.

Today, secondary students must complete two-credits of e-learning unless they opt out of this graduation requirement. Unfortunately, opting out doesn’t change the reality that less funding follows each student, no matter what they choose to do. Under the funding formula, funding for an average e-learning class assumes class sizes of 30 students per teacher; for in-person classes, the ratio is 23:1.

While students can opt out of mandatory e-learning and take all of their classes in person, school boards are funded as if every secondary student takes two online courses. In other words, online learning is optional; the funding cuts that go with it are not.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Ontario has been unique in Canada for its eager and early adoption of online education, misusing it to inflate class sizes, cut staffing, and reduce in-person programming. The real crisis of the pandemic in education is that the government has used it to expand the scope of online education to include:

COVID-19 highlighted the value of in-person learning as much as it highlighted the role of technology to (temporarily and unevenly) alleviate the impact caused by school closures. At scale, many families struggled to participate in online learning. Further, according to a wide-ranging international study by Human Rights Watch, governments also “put at risk or directly violated children’s privacy and other children’s rights, for purposes unrelated to their education.”

As many of us found, online learning was not a replacement for the benefits of a K-12 public system, which connects students to in-person support and vital social services during their formative years.

This year, while provinces and territories across Canada transitioned students away from online learning toward in-person learning, especially for those youngest and in greatest need of support, Ontario continued to mandate online education. In fact, Queen’s Park went one step further, proposing to make it a permanent feature of the public education system, including for students in grades K-8. Faced with cuts to in-person course offerings, many more secondary students will be forced into a model of standardized online learning.

The government’s latest proposal not only mandates full-time virtual schools from K-12, with no additional funding provided for administration, it will also centralize the administration of e-learning credits through TVO’s ILC. The ILC will assume responsibility for delivering courses to secondary students in Ontario and, to generate revenue, it will market online courses outside of the province. Courses delivered by the ILC will not have limits to class sizes or live learning. The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association spoke out against the plan in 2020, concerned that it “risks privatization with competing priorities and agendas.”

The current government is one election away from turning its online learning proposal into reality, paving the way for a one-size-fits-all model of online education that leaves the province vulnerable to corporate intrusion.

Opposing slash-and-burn policies

Since the current government was elected four years ago, public education funding has been dwindling and COVID-19 has exacerbated educational inequality. In 2021-22, school boards across the province received $1.6 billion less, in today’s dollars, than they did 2017-2018. This translates to a loss of $800 per student, on average.

The impact of these shortfalls is documented in CCPA Ontario’s Catching Up Together, which sets out two possible policy directions for the province: The first is to invest in public education and narrow the opportunity gap, which has widened since the pandemic. The second is to make education a never-ending competition for ever-shrinking resources, which can only drive parents with means toward private sector alternatives.

In contrast, the NDP, the Liberals, and the Greens at Queen’s Park have committed to investing in public education and have all promised to scrap the mandatory requirement for two e-learning credits and hybrid learning. Each party offers a distinct vision to strengthen public education.

No matter the outcome on June 2, we will have a long road ahead to repair the damage sustained through four years of successive crises and austerity budgeting.

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