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Year in review: From strikes to COVID shutdown, 2020 was tumultuous for education sector

Parents, students were thrown for a loop when schools shut down, classes moved online this spring

The year 2020 has certainly been a tumultuous one in the education sector, and that wasn’t entirely due to the pandemic.

If you can cast your mind back to before COVID-19 hit Canada in March, there was a series of rotating teachers’ strikes in late 2019 and early 2020 that would eventually affect all four major teachers’ unions in Ontario and had teachers hitting the picket lines in subzero temperatures.

However, after the pandemic shutdown this spring, the province and teachers’ unions were able to ink deals relatively quickly.

In early March, after the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Greater Sudbury was identified, Laurentian became the first university in Canada to move its classes entirely online due to the pandemic. All post-secondary institutions in the country were to follow.

The man with that first local COVID case, Stewart Hamilton, is a geologist with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, and works out of the Willet Green Miller Centre on the Laurentian University campus.

Hamilton contracted coronavirus after attending the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference.

Things moved quickly after Laurentian announced it was going virtual due to the pandemic, as the next day came the news that all publicly-funded elementary and secondary schools in Ontario would have an extended three-week March break.

Well, we all know how that went, as the balance of the last school year was moved to emergency remote learning, and all daycare centres closed, leaving parents, teachers and school boards alike scrambling to make arrangements.

Sudbury.com featured some of Greater Sudbury’s finest educators this spring with our Awesome Educators series, focusing on teachers and other educators who really stepped up for their students in this unusual situation, as they taught over the internet from their homes.

Parents lived with uncertainty until the province released its school reopening plan in the summer. Students were allowed to either opt for in-person or online classes. 

Elementary schools across Ontario opened with conventional in-person delivery, following precautions to limit students’ contacts.

In secondary schools, students at Southern Ontario boards attended class remotely half of the time and in-person half of the time. 

But here in Greater Sudbury, secondary students were able to attend school in-person full time, with precautions to limit their contacts.

Although students were able to take part in remote learning if they so chose, with local COVID-19 case counts relatively low, most families in the area opted to send their kids to in-person school this fall.

Meanwhile, teachers’ unions called on the province to mandate smaller class sizes, and filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, alleging the reopening plan violated workplace safety laws. This complaint was later dismissed by the OLRB.

For its part, Laurentian University offered the vast majority of its classes online this fall, and will continue to do so throughout the winter of 2021. Cambrian College reopened in September with a hybrid online and hands-on model, as did Collège Boréal.

While necessary, online learning has come at a cost to both students and faculty, Laurentian psychology professor Cynthia Whissell said in October. 

“It is a huge impact, it is a grinding impact and it is grinding on both students and faculty,” she said, adding that students often don’t have maximal technology or they’re not in maximal locations to obtain course materials.

Faculty have also been “bending over backwards” to make the new course formats work, Whissell said.

Remote learning is also a challenge for the youngest students. We spoke to Sudbury teacher Kelly Beaton, who has been teaching online kindergarten, about the challenges and unexpected delights associated with her job.

For those teaching or attending in-person school, there were different challenges. There have been several COVID-19 cases reported in local daycares, elementary and secondary schools, as well as at Cambrian College.

This has meant entire school classes sent home by Public Health Sudbury & Districts to self-isolate for two weeks, although no schools have been shut down as of yet.

Laurentian University students will be getting an extended winter break, giving students travelling back and forth between Sudbury and their home communities time to quarantine, as appropriate. It also gives faculty more time to prepare courses for online delivery.

As the education sector weathers the rollercoaster that has been COVID-19, Laurentian’s finances have suffered.

Suspending admission to 17 programs, looking critically at course offerings with low enrolments, negotiating with government and a university-wide hiring freeze are among the ways Laurentian University is tackling what’s now projected to be a $10.6M 2020-21 budget shortfall.

The good news? Despite most classes being delivered remotely, Haché said Laurentian’s domestic student enrolment was actually up on the first day of class this fall.

As the year 2020 waned, there was one more major announcement related to education.

On Dec. 21, the province announced that due to surging COVID-19 cases, elementary and secondary students will participate in remote learning from Jan. 4-8, after the Christmas holidays.

Schools in northern public health regions (such as Greater Sudbury) will be permitted to resume in-person instruction Jan. 11 for both elementary and secondary students. 

In other parts of the province, the situation is a bit different, as elementary students will return to in-person learning Jan. 11, while secondary students will continue to learn remotely until Jan. 25, when they will be able to return to in-person learning.