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18 Months In, Have We Learned Any Lessons?

Toggling Toward a ‘New Normal’

As the 2020-21 school year progressed, it was evident lessons that could, or should, have been learned during the rapid transition to emergency remote teaching in Spring 2020 had not been heeded in all provinces and territories. The reality was that some jurisdictions simply did not put in place the necessary planning or preparation to allow the 2020-21 school year to proceed in the expected ‘toggle term’ fashion – as envisioned by Phase 3 of the educational response to COVID-19 (see Figure 1 above). While some schools remained open throughout the entire 2020-21 school year and others offered robust online learning instruction, some jurisdictions experienced province-wide school closures for up to 19 weeks with limited success with remote learning due to a lack of planning and teacher training. Even those schools that remained open, often used a model of hybrid learning that boards/districts and teachers were unprepared to implement with the level of fidelity needed to ensure that students had an equitable learning experience to the in person, classroom-based context (Stewart, 2021; Wong, 2021b).

While it may be safe to say that in many jurisdictions teachers lacked the training and were unprepared to transition to remote learning, this was not the case in other jurisdictions. Some provinces and territories were potentially much better positioned to provide continuity of learning than others. For example, Nova Scotia extended their December 2020 holiday break for students by one week, and set province-wide teacher professional development during the first week of January 2021 that covered a variety of topics (including social emotional learning and technology). Further, guidelines were announced for the 2020-21 school year that established minimum hours for synchronous remote learning and asynchronous learning. The Ministry of Education also provided all teachers access to their eLearning site and distributed assistive technologies for students requiring them.

Similarly, British Columbia delayed implementing changes to its online learning programs (Government of British Columbia, 2021a) which enabled many of the 69 public and independent online schools to enroll students whose parents/guardians preferred them to learn from home (Barbour et al., 2020a). British Columbia also continued with student cohorts or ‘learning groups’ for in-school learning and for secondary students a hybrid learning model was implemented with cohort groups alternating in-school attendance and remote learning. Teachers were required to transition learning materials to a learning management system (such as Moodle, Google Classroom, or Microsoft Teams). As such, teachers were able to track student progress whether they were attending at school or while they were learning remotely. It is also worth noting that there were no province-wide school closures in the 2020-21 school year.

Arguably, both British Columbia’s and Nova Scotia’s provincial models could support ‘toggling’ between in-school and online/remote learning options as described in Phase 4 of Figure 1. However, it is not entirely clear to what degree that might have occurred or how effective the practices were. Some of the initial information indicated that British Columbia saw a slight increase in classroom attendance (Montreuil et al., 2021), as well as the number of students traditionally learning online (i.e., approximately 10 percent of the student population), but also found large gaps and decreases in both attendance and achievement for Indigenous students.

Preparation to Open for Fall 2021

It is important to remember that at the time each of these jurisdictions were determining and/or adjusting their plans for K-12 education, it was against the backdrop of the status of the pandemic in their individual province or territory. Health Canada (2021) began presenting the number of active COVID-19 cases in graphical format on their website in late July 2020. Table A-1, as well as Figures A-1 through A-4, in Appendix A indicate the number of active cases in each jurisdiction across Canada on the first day of June, July, August, and September for each province and territory. This data is not presented to parse trends with regard to infection rates throughout the Summer 2021 planning period, or to suggest specific differences between the provinces and territories. However, as the active case rate would have been an important factor influencing each jurisdictions’ plans and actions, it is important that the reader have ready access to this data.

As one example, it was against the backdrop of these active case rates during the summer 2021, as well as the active case rates throughout the 2020-21 school year (see Appendix A in Nagle et al, 2021), that provinces and territories made the public health decisions described in Table 3 that could impact the instructional model during the 2021-22 school year.

Table 3. Factors impacting the instructional model

JurisdictionVaccineMasksDistancingCohortsClass SizeActivities
BCNoneRequired for grade 4 and upNot required  Can resume
ABNoneNot requiredNot required  Can resume
SKNoneRequired for unvaccinatedNot requiredNone  
MBNoneIndoorsWhere possibleK-6 Follow public health guidelines
ONNoneRequiredWhere possibleNone Can resume
QCNoneNot requiredNot requiredNone Can resume
NBNoneRequired None “Greater freedom”
NSNoneRequiredRequiredNoneNot specifiedCan resume
PENoneRecommended   Follow public health guidelines
NLNoneNot requiredNot requiredNoneNot specifiedCan resume
YTNoneRequiredRequiredNone Can resume
NTNoneRequiredRequiredK-6Recommended On hold
NUNoneUp to local public health officialsWhere possibleRecommended On hold

Based on the active COVID-19 cases, some jurisdictions were banking on limited spread of the virus in schools. This hope was based on data from the last school year, which may not have factored in viral variant spread in the student population (i.e., the largest pool of the unvaccinated). The pressure was on for swift vaccination to counter further disruption, yet at the time of publication some schools across the country were closing (CBC News 2021a; Moore, 2021; Watson, 2021).

Even with a more relaxed approach to public health precautions, Table 5 illustrates that most jurisdictions still did not make systematic preparations for hybrid learning or remote learning (beyond what was experienced during the Spring 2020 or the 2020-21 school year).

Table 4. Fall 2021 Learning Options by Jurisdiction           

JurisdictionLearning Options
BCFull in-person instruction; with distance learning an option
ABFull in-person instruction
SKFull in-person instruction; additionally secondary students will be able to obtain credits through a variety of educational avenues
MBFull in-person instruction; remote learning available for students who are immunocompromised
ONFull in-person instruction; remote learning required based on Policy/Program Memorandum No. 164
QCFull in-person instruction
NBFully in-person instruction, but policies may be adjusted depending on epidemiology
PEFull in-person instruction, but policies will be adjusted depending on level of risk; remote learning available to high risk students
NSFull in-person instruction, but policies may be adjusted depending on epidemiology
NLFull in-person instruction; remote learning for students who cannot attend due to medical reasons
YTFull in-person instruction; supports, tools, and training available for blended learning and remote learning
NTFull in-person instruction; remote learning is available for students with medical concerns
NUFull in-person instruction (unless advise by public health officials)

Both Table 3 and 4 demonstrate a pattern for the continuation of putting all efforts and focus to in-person instruction, again with minimal focus on preparing for a ‘toggle’ described in Phase 3 in Figure 1. Indeed, with continuing disruptions and school closures, such as the October public employee’s strike in New Brunswick (Brown & April, 2021), the argument could be made that few jurisdictions are even thinking about a ‘new normal’ and the ability to actually pivot swiftly between in school and remote learning with limited impact on student engagement and learning. In Ontario, in the government’s guide to reopening schools (Davidson, 2021), school boards were required to consider remote learning when schools closed due to inclement weather. The need to effectively plan for and train teachers for a model of ‘toggling’ between in school and remote could not be more clear.

There are several specific examples in the Fall 2021 that are worth noting that could be examples of a move to supporting the ‘toggle’. For example, British Columbia continued to delay the implementation of changes to its online learning programs (Government of British Columbia, 2021a) which enabled many of the 69 public and independent online schools to enroll students whose parents/guardians preferred them to learn from home (Barbour et al., 2020a). In Nova Scotia when the new school year launched, 75 percent of parents surveyed reported having reliable bandwidth in their homes based on improvements made the year before, and, coupled with a clear direction to upskill teachers with the one-week province-wide teacher training in January 2021 and the provincial online tools and curriculum resources provided to all teachers, Nova Scotia arguably also had the ability to ‘toggle’ and adapt to changing circumstances as described in Phase 4.

In stark contrast, in Ontario the concurrent teaching model – where classroom-based teachers teach students in the classroom and simultaneously to remote students logged into web conferencing software that live streams the classroom – began emerging during the 2020-21 school year. It was dubbed as ‘hybrid learning,’ but as discussed earlier the Ontario model was the concurrent teaching model of hybrid.[1] This ‘live’ broadcast teaching model with students in the classroom and others logging in by video remotely was planned for by many boards after the Ministry of Education announced that all school boards in the province would offer a remote learning option during the 2021-22 school year (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2021; C. Wilson, 2021). While many boards already offered optional online learning programs that were quickly doubling in size, some boards were unable to offer an online program that covered the full curriculum (King, 2021; Simcoe County District School Board, 2021). Further, many school boards lacked the necessary funding to create or offer an online or remote learning program (Wong, 2021b). In essence, the concurrent teaching or hybrid learning model was the only way that many school boards were able to meet the Ministry’s remote learning policy requirement that was within the board’s financial means. Even before the start of the new school year, the model had fallen under criticism (Stewart, 2021) and recently teachers unions are speaking out about its negative impact on both teachers and student learning (Fox, 2021a).

There were some jurisdictions who provided good detail and direction in their announced plans at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Interestingly, both Nunavut and the Yukon are examples of jurisdictions where the Ministry plans were detailed and descriptive, but more importantly outlined a variety of instructional options to accommodate all possibilities associated with a realistic understanding of the toggle nature of the 2021-22 school year. For example, Nunavut has a 35-page document that outlines a variety of strategies to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 into schools, how to respond when COVID-19 is detected in the school, how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 once it is present, and how to address potential learning disruption to individual student’s, complete classes, or complete schools (Nunavut Department of Education, 2021a). Further, recognizing that the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years were both disrupted and that unequal levels of learning may have occurred, the Nunavut Department of Education (2021b) released Learning to Be Together Again Support for Nunavut Schools in 2021-22, which began with a focus on ‘recovery learning,’ or the “responsive process that enables students to transition back to in-class learning, while addressing mental and physical well-being and student achievement” (p. 5). The goals of recovery learning are to determine where students are in their understanding and then to offer students flexible avenues to help them achieve where they need to be. In addition to the recovery learning aspects, the document also focused on how to incorporate blended learning and remote learning – depending on the local epidemiology.

Similarly, the Yukon (2021a) in their School during COVID-19: Guidelines for the 2021–22 School Year provided clear guidelines for “What school looks like for ALL students” and “What school looks like at individual schools” in the case of 100%, 50%, 20% and 0% school capacity. Essentially, there were detailed descriptions for the public health measures in place for in-person learning, how schools would operate and learning would occur when there was a need for hybrid learning with half capacity and very low capacity, and then the planning needed for remote learning to occur. Additionally, even when there was no disruption, the document outlined measures that would be undertaken to incorporate more blended learning into the classroom, which it was argued would make hybrid learning and remote learning less of an adjustment. These types of plans were much more realistic in terms of how the 2021-22 school year was likely to progress, as compared to the perspective that “students must return to class… barring ‘only the most catastrophic of circumstances’” (CBC News, 2021b, para. 1).

Opening Days of the 2021-22 School Year

At the start of the 2021-22 school year, the concurrent teaching variation of the hybrid learning model quickly came under criticism after it was announced as an option for the coming school year in Ontario. As a reminder, the concurrent teaching model is one where the teacher manages instruction and student learning for children that arrive to their classroom, while simultaneously streaming that instruction to children who are forced or choose to remain at home and connect to the room remotely. Stewart (2021) suggested that the “relationships teachers build and support in their classrooms… are integral to children’s engagement, learning and wellness [and that a] hybrid model disrupts those practices, and encourages a default to simple, slowed-down, teacher-led approaches” (para. 13-14). This, according to Stewart, reduced the quality of the education received by students both in the classroom and online. This criticism was echoed in the voices of students who were concerned that teachers were preoccupied with technology and processes to try and connect the two groups of students to the classroom, as one chemistry teacher trying to demonstrate an experiment and had “five screens up, two mouses and two keyboards — and it takes her half an hour to set it up.., class time that we could be using to be learning chemistry” (Wong, 2021c, para. 5). Teachers as well expressed significant concerns about the concurrent teaching model as one teacher explains:

before classes start, he must also connect all his online ‘production’ gear, which includes computers, a web cam and a tablet. Then, if he suddenly loses connectivity to his learners at home, he has to quickly troubleshoot. “Meanwhile, the kids in-class? I have to keep them engaged and occupied,” Bradshaw said. “It’s really the job of at least two people, maybe three people, if you consider the tech support that’s involved. But you have to try and do it on your own.” (para. 25-27).

None of the plans announced by Ontario prior to the start of the 2021-22 school year offered support, or even envisioned, the hybrid and concurrent models that are currently being used.

While the focus of this report – and the jurisdictional profiles that follow – are about the planning and preparation that occurred during the summer 2021, this report is being published during the first week of November it does allow for some evaluation of how ready different jurisdictions actually were. As described above, the preliminary feedback on the concurrent teaching model underway in Ontario does not bode well on its ability to transition into the Phase 4 or the ‘Emerging New Normal.’ Yet, the actions during the 2020-21 school year in both British Columbia and Nova Scotia showed encouraging signs towards this transition. More study is certainly called for and required across the country.

Given the epidemiological realities of the pandemic, anyone approaching the situation from a realistic perspective understands that the 2021-22 school year will be another year of toggling between various states of in-person and remote learning. With only two months into the current school year, we have already seen school closures and the need for remote learning due local and regional outbreaks from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia to the Northwest Territories (CBC News 2021a; Moore, 2021; Watson, 2021) – and everywhere in between (CBC News 2021c; CBC News 2021d; CBC News 2021e; The Canadian Press, 2021). It is hoped that some of the differences in policy and practice that emerged throughout the 2020-21 school year, and even those announced at the start of this new school year, will become guides for politicians and policymakers across the country as schools continue to grapple with the demands of another toggle school year.

However, it is also important for politicians and policymakers – as well as practitioners – to continue to keep an eye on the emerging new normal. While much of the remote learning provided over the past 18 months has been poorly supported and executed, there have been groups that have benefitted from learning in an online setting (Collins-Nelsen et al., 2021; Fernando, 2021; Miller, 2021). When parents/guardians are free to choose between in-person or online learning (or some combination of the two) without concern about their child’s health, what will the K-12 distance, online, and blended learning landscape look like? How will the remote learning lessons of the pandemic inform policy and practice in the future? What will politicians and policymakers take away from the past 18 months to guide short-term and long-term school closures during the next disaster? These questions highlight the need to continue this line of inquiry, as well as future research under consideration by CANeLearn.

To read more, click here for the full report.


[1] For a detailed discussion of various hybrid student arrangements and configurations in the United State, see Arnett (2021).

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