Meeting Tuesday, trustees with the Rainbow District School Board made a stand against Ontario government plans leaked to the media that would see remote learning become a permanent part of the province’s school system.
The trustees unanimously passed the following motion: “That the Rainbow District School Board write a letter expressing its grave concerns about the provincial government’s proposed plan for online and remote learning.”
A March 22 Ministry of Education presentation obtained by the Globe and Mail lays out three forms of online school that could be offered.
That includes remote learning offered by school boards (including full-day synchronous learning for students of all ages, and individual high school courses).
But the aspect of this plan that has especially raised hackles among stakeholders is a proposal that would see agencies such as TVO and TFO offering asynchronous online learning to secondary students located both in Ontario and out-of-province.
At the March 30 special Rainbow board meeting on the topic, trustees heard presentations from not only Rainbow board staff about the potential impacts, but also teachers’ union officials, who were invited to speak.
All of the speakers presented a united front in their opposition to the idea.
Trustee Dena Morrison, who put forward the motion against the plan, colourfully remarked it has “had my hair on fire for over a week now.”
She said she sees this as “a very slippery slope to privatization of the public education system. We can’t let that happen.”
While the government is talking about enrolling kids in online school through TVO right now, “and most of us we have not a lot of issues with TVO,” Morrison said she sees this as the “thin edge of the wedge.”
She said the province wants a centralized virtual school because it will save money, and it could be expanded over time.
It could even mean selling off this part of the education system “to the highest bidder,” Morrison said.
“But what it means, bottom line for us, and our parents need to understand this, is that it looks like a parental choice that at first blush looks pretty good,” Morrison said.
“But in the end, the more kids that choose that option, the fewer resources we as a board get, and you know 70 per cent of our budget is dedicated, as it should be, to our staff and their benefits.
“That means fewer staff, and if you have fewer staff at the local school level, and you have fewer options for kids, you have fewer supporting, nurturing, caring adults to do all the other wrap-around things we all know we do.”
Rainbow board director of education Norm Blaseg said the Ministry of Education's plan to make online learning a permanent part of the education system has not yet been officially shared with boards.
He said school boards in the middle of putting together staffing plans for the 2021-22 school year. Given this leaked document, the Rainbow board has sought clarification from the province, which continues to say boards will be funded for a normal school year.
Blaseg said there is “little contextual evidence” to say that board surveys reporting support for online learning preference “due to a pandemic scenario” is validation for the creation of a permanent online remote option.
The province plans to provide remote students with wrap-around services such as breakfast programs, mental health supports and access to wifi, to name a few.
“That sounds extremely inclusive,” said Blaseg. “However, staffing to support these initiatives would come from existing dollars and pull from current services supporting face-to-face.
“And to be clear, the document is clear that no new monies will be forthcoming to oversee these initiatives.”
He said that in rural settings, permanent remote learning could make the need for physical buildings moot.
“If too many folks opt for the remote scenario, the ministry could close the school as the physical attendance is too small to warrant it remaining open,” Blaseg said. “We have several schools that are small and could fall into that scenario.”
He said some students could thrive on the initiative.
“But that is a small minority,” Blaseg said. “Circumstances for parents must be optimal. Typically one of the parents or the guardians is a stay-at-home support, hence, for many of our families, this is not an option.”
Eric Laberge, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) District 3, along with his colleague Liana Holm, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) Rainbow local, presented at the meeting.
The union official said teachers are suspicious of the government’s plan to create standalone infrastructure for e-learning “that could ultimately be sold off to the highest bidder, therefore, privatizing a chunk of Ontario’s publicly funded education system.”
Laberge said Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce has spent the past year talking about the importance of having kids in the classroom amid the pandemic.
He said this was echoed in a report from Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital, which in January said daily in-person school is best, as it allows for consistency, stability and equity, regardless of the region in which children live.
Laberge said learning gaps have been exacerbated by the situation in Ontario’s schools during the pandemic, and students' mental health and development have suffered, with racial minorities especially impacted.
“Now the minister is creating a permanent path to having students out of the classroom, and out of reach of the face-to-face supports that education workers provide,” Laberge said.
“He should be turning his mind to post-pandemic recovery within the publicly funded education system, and not creating a central entity to administer and deliver online courses.”