Toronto’s Rich Neighbourhoods Opt for In-Person School

September 9, 2020

On Saturday, the Globe and Mail reported that high-income parents in Toronto and across Canada are choosing to form “learning pods” rather than send their children to in-person school this fall. But our analysis of registration survey results released by TDSB last Thursday shows that parents in the most economically advantaged schools overwhelmingly opted for in-person rather than virtual school. In contrast, a smaller share of parents in middle- and lower-income schools preferred in-person school.¹

The graph below shows the percent of elementary school² parents who selected in-person learning by the school’s Learning Opportunities Index (LOI). LOI is TDSB’s composite measure of schools’ “external challenges,” based on neighbourhood census data for the students attending the school. LOI includes data on income, education, family structure and social assistance; higher LOI indicates greater disadvantage. For simplicity, we will refer to parents in low-LOI schools as “parents in high-income neighbourhoods.”

There is a clear negative correlation between LOI and the share of parents opting for in-person school. There is also a pronounced curve in the graph; parental preferences in middle- and low-income neighbourhoods are more alike, while there is a sharper difference between high- and middle-income neighbourhoods. There is also a cluster of middle-LOI schools with strong preferences against in-person schooling. Most of these schools are in Scarborough; we’ll say more about them later.

Percent Opting for In-Person School by LOI, TDSB Elementary Schools

Why are parents in middle- and low-income neighbourhoods more wary of in-person school? The answer becomes clearer when we look at this pattern geographically. On the map below, the green schools are those with the highest parental preference for in-person learning. They tend to be located in the highest-income neighbourhoods downtown and in North York. The red schools are those with the lowest preference for in-person school; and the yellow schools are in the middle. Red and yellow schools tend to be in middle- and low-income neighborhoods in Scarborough and northwest Toronto. These are also the neighbourhoods with the largest share of visible minority residents in the city. You can find your school’s registration numbers in this interactive Google Map.

The patterns of parental preferences by neighbourhood support the Globe and Mail’s main two explanations for why parents in middle- and low-income neighbourhoods are very rationally worried about in-person school:

1.Low-income neighbourhoods have higher rates of COVID-19 infections. The map below shows recent (Aug. 14-Sep. 3) COVID-19 infection rates by neighbourhood. Parents are logically more concerned about sending their children to school if they have a higher chance of contracting COVID-19. However, recent infection rates are not the full explanation. Several neighbourhoods in Scarborough have low preferences for in-person school despite low recent COVID-19 infection rates. Also, the middle- and high-income neighbourhoods in the West End and Etobicoke tend to prefer in-person schooling, despite recent upticks in COVID-19 cases.

Percent Opting for In Person School by Recent Covid Cases, TDSB Elementary Schools
Percent Opting for In Person School by Recent Covid Cases, TDSB Elementary Schools

Recent vs. total cases: Perhaps parents’ perceptions of COVID-19 risk are not up-to-date but are based on total COVID-19 cases over the course of the entire pandemic. The map below shows total COVID-19 infection rates by neighbourhood. Total COVID-19 cases better explain the reluctance of Scarborough parents to send their children to in-person school, but still do not fully explain preferences in north Scarborough.

2. Middle- and low-income neighbourhoods have larger shares of multigenerational households. Parents are more worried about their children bringing COVID-19 into the home if they live with older relatives. This seems to be another good explanation for the low preference for in-person schooling we see in some Scarborough neighborhoods. It is also consistent with the perception of the president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto union local, quoted in Monday’s Toronto Star. The map below shows the prevalence of multigenerational households by borough (finer grained data are not publicly available).

Percent Opting for In Person School by Percent in Multigenerational Households, TDSB Elementary Schools
Percent Opting for In Person School by Percent in Multigenerational Households, TDSB Elementary Schools

So while “learning pods” are a real phenomenon, it appears not many high-income parents are carrying out this option.³ Besides low COVID-19 infection rates and few multigenerational households, why are parents in high-income neighbourhoods opting for in-person school? We had a few hypotheses:

1.Are high-income parents more politically conservative and thus skeptical of the risks of COVID-19? The map below shows the share voting conservative in the 2015 federal election by riding. Despite the strong partisanship in COVID-19 beliefs in the United States, Toronto parents’ preferences for in-person schooling do not appear correlated with conservative vote share. If anything, more conservative ridings seem less inclined to opt for in-person schooling.

Percent Opting for In Person School by Federal Conservative Vote %, TDSB Elementary Schools
Percent Opting for In Person School by Federal Conservative Vote %, TDSB Elementary Schools

2. Do high-income families have a greater need for childcare? High-income families may be the most likely to have two white-collar parents working full-time from home; childcare may be less pressing in middle-income families with a stay-at-home parent. However, childcare would be an even more urgent need in lower-income families where parents are essential workers outside the home. Unfortunately, census data on the share of families with a stay-at-home parent are not publicly available.

3. Are high-income families strategically reserving their children’s spaces in school? Low in-person registration is causing TDSB to collapse classrooms together. High-income parents may be reserving their children’s spaces by enrolling in-person but planning to switch quickly to virtual school if in-person school seems unsafe. Although TDSB officially only allows switching at designated times, principals are allowed to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. This third “strategic” hypothesis is echoed by a new Facebook campaign in Parkdale urging parents to register for in-person school to prevent classes from being collapsed.

TDSB is planning to set lower class size caps for schools in communities at higher risk for COVID-19. However, this plan is based on current in-person registration numbers, which we know are lowest in neighbourhoods hardest hit by COVID-19. What will happen if registration numbers shift as classes in high-income neighbourhoods begin to empty out shortly into the school year? Does TDSB’s plan take into account that registration choices may reflect not straightforward family preferences but inequalities in access to information, networks and savviness?

Anna Katyn Chmielewski is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Omar Khan is a Toronto-based advocate working with newcomer refugees and their communities, and a computer scientist.


¹ High-LOI (lower-income) schools also had lower response rates to the parent registration survey. This may be partially due to language barriers. TDSB is currently following up with non-responding families by phone. All our analyses exclude non-responding parents and report the percent of parents opting for in-person school of those who responded. Thus, we implicitly assume that non-responding parents would respond similarly to other parents who responded in their school. If non-responding parents decide against in-person schooling at higher rates than other parents in their school, then the patterns we report here will become even more extreme, with even lower preferences for in-person schooling in the most economically disadvantaged schools. Conversely, if non-responding parents opt for in-person schooling, these patterns would become less pronounced. Go back

² We focus here on elementary rather than secondary schools because (1) elementary school attendance is more closely tied to neighbourhood, since elementary students tend to attend school closer to home than secondary students, and (2) TDSB elementary schools will be open full-time 5 days a week with normal class sizes, while secondary schools will alternate in-person and virtual learning days and reduce class sizes. In the TDSB parent registration survey, secondary school parents opted for in-person school at higher rates than elementary parents. The graph below shows that the same relationship between LOI and in-person preferences is present, but weaker than the relationship at the elementary level. There were also lower response rates from secondary parents. Go back

(Graph added on Sept 17, 2020)

³ It is possible that parent registration survey numbers overstate the share of parents in high-income schools who opted for in-person schooling if parents planning to use “learning pods,” other homeschooling arrangements or private schools did not respond to the registration survey or have left the public school system altogether. Go back

Anna Chmielewski is an Associate Professor at OISE, University of Toronto. Omar Khan is a refugee advocate, and a computer scientist.