There Are 72 Different Ways to Get Students Back to School. We Need One Good One.
This past spring, in the midst of this unprecedented pandemic that is affecting the whole world, the Ontario education system tried to continue to educate students at home throughout the province. However, what we had this spring was not education for the most part. Both parents and teachers were thrown into ad-hoc unplanned learning, and for many parents this was nowhere near enough for their children.
Throughout the spring, I conducted roundtables on Special Education, participated in online forums, and conducted a survey of Special Education during a Pandemic, with the results to be released in July. I have had conversations with hundreds of concerned parents throughout the province.
The Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, announced in June an initial framework for getting students back to school more regularly this Fall, with a need to balance protecting students, educators, admin and all families as Covid-19 is still very much present in the world around us.
The principles that Minister Stephen Lecce announced in the return to schools plan are good, and provide a framework from which school boards need to build their back to school plans.
The framework includes:
- Voluntary School Attendance, parents can opt out of sending their children to schools during the pandemic.
- Maintain a limit of 15 students in a typical classroom at one time.
- Adopt timetabling that would allow, to the greatest extent practical, for students to remain in contact with only their classmates and a single teacher for as much of the school day as possible.
- Students not in class for a day or days would need to be assigned curriculum linked work; where possible, students not in class could participate in synchronous learning with their classmates for a period of the school day.
- Boards would need to consider providing students with a high level of special education needs, for whom remote learning may be challenging, the option of attending school every day.
- Limit parents and visitors inside the school.
- Minimize the number of personal belongings.
In Ontario, there are 1.4 million students that will be returning to public schools between JK and Grade 8. They are spread out over 72 different school boards.
There are many intertwined dynamics between Ministry of Education and the various education stakeholders in Ontario:
- Ministry of Education — sets curriculum, guidelines and regulations for boards.
- 72 different school boards — with 72 different ways of interpreting guidelines and recommendations.
- Educators — Teachers, Educational Assistants, Early Childhood Educators, Special Education staff, school administrators — teach curriculum, follow ministry guidelines and directives. Report to school boards but are members of education unions.
- Various education unions — fought a hard battle to prevent or limit online education, and now members are forced to find a way to teach through online methods. There is quite a bit of continued animosity and distrust between the unions and the Ministry of Education.
- Caregivers — want their children taught, to be cared for and kept safe. Are stressed at having been the primary educators this past spring, and many want to get back to work, regular activities.
- Students — many miss being with peers, found they had difficulties learning completely asynchronously this past spring.
The 72 school boards need to be held to a clearly defined, simple, consistent set of standards across Ontario that take into consideration and deal with any regional issues that may arise.
So how can we resolve this?
What are some options that can get students actually fully learning in the fall and have them, their families and educators be safe, and financially stable?
If we have cohorts of 15 students, yet the average class size in Ontario K-8 is 23/24 students, then most classes will be split in 2.
The vast majority of schools cannot see the doubling up of classes in their buildings, so some boards are coming up with alternative ways of delivering classes with the smaller cohorts.
- Alternating full days for cohorts. Day at school/Day at home.
- Alternating two days for cohorts with cleaning day. Mon/Tues At School. Wed School closed for deep cleaning. Thurs/Fri At Home. (the 2nd cohort does the reverse.) Some parents have voiced thier concerns over this.
- Weekly switch schedule. One full week at school. One full week at home. (alternating cohorts at school).
- Two schools in one schedule. First cohort in school from 7am — noon. Second cohort in school from 1pm — 6pm.
All of these ideas make the assumption that children are going to be home part-time. This will affect parents in one of at least two ways.
- One parent will need to stay home during the times that the child(ren) are home.
- Families will have to arrange and pay for alternative childcare during the time their children will be out of school.
To alleviate this burden on parents we are going to have to provide financial accommodations similar to what has been provided so far during the pandemic — CERB, Support For Families, Canada Child Benefit increases. However, funding parents to stay home does not achieve the goal of bringing the economy back, and getting people back to work.
There are several ways we can meet these conflicting family needs:
- Fund parents to stay home. Have a large monthly increase to the Ontario Child Credit for parents who must stay home part-time to look after their children K-8. They may use this to replace their income lost during this time, or to hire childcare. This would be renewed on a term by term basis.
- Fund childcare bursaries. Set a maximum income of $70K and provide a bursary for parents to fund childcare. This would require loosening the restrictions on number of children in a home daycare to make this possible. Loosen the rules as part of emergency measures on a term by term basis.
- Setup public childcare facilities to support K-8 students on off days/weeks.
- Incentivize work-sharing. For both employers and employees, provide funding to incentivize work-sharing for parents to be able to stay at home part time to be with their children, and be able to return to their position when their children are in school. This won’t work for every job and every person, but it could provide some flexibility to employers who really need work done on a full-time basis.
However, if the desire is to get parents back working full time, we can look at some alternatives to get students learning full-time.
- Explore schools splitting campuses into community buildings. Set up alternative campuses in community centres, religious buildings, municipal buildings, etc. to be able to house all cohorts of students every week on a 4-day schedule, to allow for one full day each week for deep cleaning.
- Incentivize supply teachers and retired teachers to come and staff these additional campuses on rolling 4-month term-by-term contracts. Prioritize newer supply teachers to allow them to get more experience. These contracts should be clearly defined and the agreed-upon expectation that their employment is to be considered temporary, on a term-by-term basis.
Regardless of how we get children to school, and whether it is part-time or full-time, we need to start planning now for different scenarios that are extremely likely to take place.
- A student in the cohort gets diagnosed with Covid-19 and needs to quarantine, requiring all other students to self-isolate for 14 days or as long as the public health officer feels is necessary.
- A teacher is sick or is diagnosed with Covid-19 and needs to be replaced.
- There is a local stay-at-home order given.
Additionally, where there is a hybrid between onsite learning, and remote at home learning, educators must focus on as much synchronous teaching to be done in school and provide asynchronous learning/projects/research to be done at home. Grades should only be based on in-school synchronous assignments.
Some other areas that conern parents in the planning of schools returning relate to special education and access to internet and technology.
Educational Assistants and Special Education Teachers MUST work together with classroom teachers to ensure that ALL students are able to learn with the class. This is important regardless whether a student is at school in class, or at home. They need synchronous video access to educational assistants, who should also be able to speak with the parent at home to provide them assistance.
Access to Internet and Technology
Fund internet for all Rural, Remote and Northern students. Effective Internet access is prohibitively expensive in many parts of Ontario. Fund a bursary for rural/remote and northern students for the full cost of internet for each term that is even partially online. This needs to be a first step, and the province also needs to begin working with the federal government to fund the infrastructure required to build and operate high speed internet throughout all areas of the province.
Provide technology devices for all students. Access to devices like laptops and tablets are prohibitively expensive for many families. Some families may have more than one child in school, needing to access education materials while at home. Ministry of Education should funds school boards to provide devices to all students who need one, and every school should be mandated to do a technology inventory for all of their students.
Even with all the limitations that are being put on school boards to provide safe education for students this fall, there are ways to support students so that they can have as much in-school learning as possible, and parents can be as financially supported as possible. This will take planning, and it will take coordination between the various levels of government. Time is of the essence, and we need to make decisions now so that we won’t be make more reactive plans in the fall.
These recommendations, based on consultations with parents from across Ontario, should help ensure that educators, caregivers and students are ready for safely returning to synchronous education in the fall. They ensure that many contingencies are accounted for, and that no student will be left behind, and all students will be adequately educated in the midst of this pandemic.
- Stability of Scheduling. Whatever plans that are made for September 2020 need to exist for all of the first term. They need to last until end of November 2020 or December 2020. Plans for Winter need to be made by October 31st and last until March break 2021. Etc.
- Develop Alternative Plans. We need to start planning now for different scenarios that are extremely likely to take place, such as a student in the cohort getting Covid-19, teacher is sick or on leave, there is a new stay-at-home order.
- Educator Personal Development. Teachers need to learn how to do synchronous teaching through digital methods. They need to know how to use learning management systems to post their teaching notes, activities, quizzes, tests in a way that K-8 students or their parents can find and use. They need to learn how to use video to project their teaching message, as well as how to use live video-based systems to see and interact with their students individually and as a class. They need to learn any online learning platforms and other tools developed by loal school boards.
- Streamline and Simplify Learning Tools. Students and parents should not have to navigate multiple technologies per class/per school. Before September, school boards should review and then limit their in-class technologies to one system across the whole school board for K-8 students. The Ministry of Education should take the lead at creating a standard of one or two digital platforms for synchronous learning, instead of 72 different platforms across the province.
- All Communication With Parents Should Be Digital. IPRC reports, IEP, report cards should from this point always be delivered electronically. Ideally available through a portal where they can log in and access their child’s documents and have an ability to provide feedback and accept or decline decisions. This portal must be permanently accessible post-Covid to allow parents to review their children’s progress at any time.
- Mandatory Video-Based Synchronous Learning Regulation. Introduce an emergency regulation that mandates that all school boards and educators have video/audio based synchronous teaching as part of the daily curriculum.
- Boards Must Consult SEACs Before Releasing Fall Term Plans. School boards must bring back SEACs for meetings this summer to discuss and evaluate Back to School Plans for the fall 2020 term to ensure that special education students are fully included in plans, and that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that parents can get at-home assistance synchronously for the times their children are at home.
- Graded Work Should Only Account For In-School Synchronous Learning. While asynchronous work should be given to students to work on while they are at home, it should only increase students’ grades, not decrease them, acknowledging that many students will not be able to fully work in an asynchronous at home learning environment.
- Parents Need Ongoing Funding To Stay At Home. Either work with the federal government to continue CERB on a term by term basis or create a way for parents to apply for an increase to the Ontario Child Credit, or a Supports For Families monthly payment that will allow parents to stay home part-time.
- Students Need Re-Entry Plans To Begin School. If/when a parent decides to send their child to school at any point during the term, there needs to be a re-entry plan created to guide them back into in-school learning, and also to ensure the health and safety of themselves and their classmates.
- Special Education Students Need Transition Assistance in August/September. Many students have had a long-extended absence from school and may need to be re-acquianted to routines, and facilities before entering fully into the school. This should ideally be done in August before school begins as there are going to be many new rules and customs for the students to get used to.
- Fund Internet For all Rural, Remote and Northern Students. Fund a bursary for rural/remote and northern students for the full cost of the prohibitively expensive internet for each term that is even partially online.
- Provide Technology Devices For All Students. School Boards should conduct a technology inventory of all their students. Those students who do not have access to a technology device for learning should be provided one. We need to remove all barriers to education going forward.