In March 2021, at the very height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ford government shared a plan with ETFO and other affiliates to make the choice of full-time virtual synchronous learning (live teaching) a permanent option for all elementary and secondary students, including after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The plan is not being suggested as an alternative programming option but, instead, as a permanent change to the delivery of publicly-funded education for all students across Ontario. The plan proposes legislative amendments to both the Education Act and the Ontario College of Teachers Act and includes expanding the authority of agencies such as TVO/TFO to deliver and coordinate virtual learning. And, even though all school boards would be required to offer virtual learning for anyone who chooses it, no additional funding would be provided by the Ministry. It is clear this plan is an experiment in virtual learning and one that will continue to deepen the digital and academic divide exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this stressful time of misinformation, mixed messaging and alternative facts what follows are 10 misconceptions about the Ministry’s Expanding Student Access to Online and Remote Learning plan contrasted with the realities.
Misconception: Synchronous virtual learning in elementary schools is only intended to be used on snow days or in an emergency.
Fact: The government is proposing a full-time virtual learning option for all days within the instructional year for families who so choose. Ultimately, parents and guardians will decide if they would like to enrol their child in virtual learning. No consultation process with educators appears to be involved in the decision about whether students will attend in-person or virtual learning. Remote learning might also become an option for parents who choose to withdraw their students for long-term vacations or absences.
In addition, in the Ministry’s plan, the number of live-teaching (synchronous learning) minutes for elementary students were only listed as “significant.” Currently, Policy Program Memorandum 164 – Requirements for Remote Learning outlines the required minutes for synchronous learning by grade. It is not expected that the Ministry will reduce the number of required live-teaching minutes, despite knowing that excessive screen time is unhealthy for students, especially our youngest learners.
Furthermore, some districts are currently using a hybrid learning model of instruction to provide a virtual learning option during the pandemic. Hybrid learning means that one educator is responsible for simultaneously teaching students who are learning at school and those who are learning from home. Under this model, teachers provide two completely different types of instruction – face-to-face learning to students in classrooms and online learning to students at home – at the same time and without the resources to do so effectively. This model has detrimental impacts and is not in the best interest of students. The Ministry’s plan does not rule out a hybrid learning model as a method of virtual instruction post pandemic.
Misconception: Virtual learning is useful for students who prefer not to access a physical school environment.
Fact: Educators have done an outstanding job teaching remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic; they have had significant successes under incredibly challenging circumstances. However, we need to be cautious that we do not see individual anecdotal experiences as evidence that virtual learning will work for any student who chooses it. This is the plan the Ministry is proposing. We need to consider the long-term impacts on the mental health and wellness of students and educators, the short-term and long-term funding implications and how this will impact all students across Ontario.
The Ministry has provided no academic research or analysis to support its underlying claim of the benefits of full-time synchronous virtual learning in the elementary grades. This permanent change is being undertaken without educational expertise and without considering any data about Ontario’s richly diverse student population, the process of learning and the realities of schools and the communities in which they are situated.
On the other hand, medical experts agree that in-person learning is the best option for children of all ages from an overall health and learning perspective. SickKids’ COVID-19: Guidance for School Operation During the Pandemic document states that “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 SickKids report goes on to say that 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.”
We know that too much time in front of a screen can lead to lasting effects on vision, especially in children. Potential effects include eye fatigue, nearsightedness and retinal damage. The Centre for Ocular Research and Education revealed in a study that “nearsightedness in Canadian children is growing at an alarming rate and too much screen time and time spent indoors is the suspected culprit.”
Misconception: More digital resources will be provided by the Ministry for virtual learning.
Fact: The Ministry has provided no additional funding for any aspect of the plan to increase remote learning, including resources.
In March of 2020 at the very start of the pandemic, the Ministry changed the way digital licenses were obtained for all publicly-funded schools across Ontario. The responsibility for purchasing and critically evaluating resources and completing cyber-security analysis of digital resources was downloaded to school boards, resulting in significantly higher purchasing costs for boards, longer timelines for obtaining quality resources and getting them into the hands of educators and increased stress on board personnel. The issues and costs related to obtaining digital resources would only be amplified with an expansion of virtual learning as proposed by the Ministry.
Proposed changes to the Education Act also include using agencies such as TVO/ TFO to prescribe the use of technology infrastructure, such as software, information systems and/or technology-based instructional tools and resources to support a consistent student experience.
This could potentially remove the option for school boards to select and choose the appropriate infrastructure and instructional digital tools used to deliver virtual learning based on local needs and priorities and will be an erosion of a teacher’s ability to exercise their professional judgement. There is a clear desire by the Ministry within this plan to standardize and centralize virtual and online learning across Ontario and remove decision-making power from local school boards.
Misconception: Early years programs, such as kindergarten, can be delivered successfully online.
Fact: Ontario’s internationally recognized early years programs are designed to help children reach their full potential through child-centred, developmentally appropriate programs based on the understanding that young children learn best through authentic play-based experiences. We know that play motivates, stimulates and supports children in all development areas. To suggest that these experiences can be replicated in a virtual environment contradicts the knowledge that we have gained from extensive research and proven in practice. As stated in the internationally- recognized The Kindergarten Program: “Children’s early experiences at school are of paramount importance. Quality early learning experiences have the potential to improve children’s overall health and well-being for a lifetime.” The excitement and anticipation in Ontario households as children start kindergarten is due to the innovative program that features two years of full-day programming, play-based pedagogy, outdoor learning, the instructional team of a teacher and DECE and strong partnerships with families and communities. These hallmarks necessitate an in-person learning environment.
Misconception: The virtual learning plan provides an equitable learning option for students.
Fact: There are many equity implications inherent in virtual learning.
Existing inequities have been highlighted – and worsened – during the pandemic. Issues with access to devices and reliable internet connectivity continue to disadvantage students across Ontario. Although this is not new, the lack of access highlights and widens socioeconomic, class and regional disparities. Virtual learning also poses unique challenges for English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with disabilities who need specialized instruction.
Students who currently have strong, at-home support, have families that can afford quality devices and reliable internet, can problem-solve technical issues and are well-resourced will benefit more from this plan than those that this proposal alleges to support.
These significant equity concerns will not be solved by expanding student access to virtual learning at this time. Throughout the pandemic, and despite the best efforts of educators and school boards, we have seen further marginalization of students and inequities exacerbated across the province.
Misconception: Many parents/families want the option of full-time virtual learning.
Fact: Families choosing virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic are doing so for a variety of reasons, including health and safety concerns. The Ford government is using the “uptake in online learning” during the pandemic as evidence of the desire for a permanent virtual learning option for elementary students post-pandemic. Clearly the opposite is true; parents want in-person learning with the appropriate healthy and safety measures in place. The government should not be using statistics collected during the pandemic, including enrollment numbers in virtual learning, as justification for a fundamental, permanent change to the delivery of public education for all students in Ontario. Changes of this magnitude require time, research, a genuine commitment to collaboration with education stakeholders and an understanding that decisions should be informed by data gathered in the field.
Misconception: The plan will allow virtual teachers and other education workers to work from home.
Fact: Unlike the virtual learning during the pandemic, there are no health restrictions that would prevent educators from reporting to work at a physical school location. Teachers and education workers would be required to perform supervision duties, participate in staff meetings and engage in their school community – as they would in a traditional school setting.
Misconception: It is easy to transfer teaching practices to a virtual learning classroom.
Fact: Teaching virtually is an entirely different way of teaching from in-person instruction. It takes a deep understanding of online pedagogy, skills and knowledge to move fluidly between in-person and online learning. Not all skills are easily transferable from one mode of instruction to the other. Assessment and evaluation are an example of this. While there are some digital tools that are helpful in assessment and evaluation, the practice of assessment and evaluation is very challenging online. Challenges that teachers face include the ability to observe elementary students during the process of learning such as problem solving, inquiring or doing any sort of “active” learning and the numerous issues that present when trying to determine the authenticity of student work.
The plan also does not address very real concerns such as the option for a student to transition back and forth between in-person and remote learning throughout the year; responsibilities for IEP completion; the role of specialized teachers such as teacher-librarians, guidance, physical education, the arts; the role of occasional teachers or other education workers such as DECEs; and the responsibility for managing, distributing and funding materials and devices for students’ learning virtually.
Misconception: Because the government will be mandating virtual learning, it will be providing additional funding to ensure its success.
Fact: Even though all school boards will be required to offer virtual learning for anyone who chooses it, no additional funding is being provided by the Ministry. This will significantly stretch the funding dollars that boards have at a time when they are already struggling to recover from the pandemic. Boards will be trying to do more with less money which will mean cuts to already vulnerable programs.
This plan has also proposed significant changes to online learning at the secondary level. This will undoubtedly impact direct funding to elementary schools as money will need to be redirected to support the implementation of these sweeping changes at the secondary level. This will impact every student served by the board, including elementary students.
Misconception: TVO has always created content that we have used. What’s changed?
Fact: TVO/TFO’s role in this proposed plan is significant and highly concerning. TVO/TFO would be given a broad mandate to control course and content creation, prescribe the use of instructional tools and resources and establish ways of data collection and sharing. Although TVO/TFO are experienced at creating content, they do not have the expertise to meet the complex and varied needs of Ontario students. The government’s expansion of the mandate for TVO/ TFO regarding online education allows not only for TVO and TFO to hire their own staff for the creation and delivery of online courses, but also allows them to outsource content creation, infrastructure and delivery to for-profit companies. Local school boards and educators know their students’ learning needs best. The increased role of TVO/TFO and other agencies in this plan is yet another way the Ford government is reducing funding to school boards and centralizing power to a third-party provider.
Ontario’s schools have experienced tremendous challenges over the past year and a half and this has had a substantial, negative impact on the mental and physical health of our students and educators. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Ford government is presenting permanent virtual learning as an unsolicited option even though it is clearly not in the best interest of Ontario students.
Presenting this plan as ground-breaking is disingenuous. Let’s be clear: having access to innovative technologies, electronic resources and digital tools while also developing the skills to be digitally fluent does not require teaching and learning to happen in a permanent virtual learning environment with full-day live teaching.
Full-time virtual learning for elementary students cannot replace in-person learning and the move to make virtual synchronous learning (live teaching) a permanent option for elementary students would be a fundamental and significant change to public education in Ontario. This change would have far-reaching short-term and long-term repercussions including funding for public schools, student and educator mental health and wellness, and the learning environment. In-person learning continues to be the most equitable public education model for students providing the highest quality teaching model with the best learning experience for all students.
Julie Millan and Leah Kearney are executive staff members at ETFO.