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Pandemic Planning, Policy, and Practice: A review of Canadian jurisdictional responses September 2020 to 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant education disruption in Ontario. This has included mass and localized school closures, multiple models of educational provision and gaps in support for students with disabilities. The unequal distribution of school closures and pandemic-associated hardships, particularly affecting low-income families in which racialized and Indigenous groups, newcomers and people with disabilities are overrepresented, appear to be deepening and accelerating inequities in education outcomes…

Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, June 2021

(Gallagher-Mackay, et al., 2021)

The Canadian eLearning Network has been chronicling Canadian provincial and territorial responses during the pandemic and has published several reports and held presentations throughout the 2020-21 and now 2021-22 school years (see https://sites.google.com/view/canelearn-ert/ for a compilation).   We have summarized that body of work here to serve as a base for a series of posts to be published in January based on the newly emerging Omicron variant and the impact it could have on January’s return to school after the holiday break.

Following the shutdowns in Spring 2020 and emergency remote teaching, both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years launched with a focus on a safe return to in-school learning. Limited attention was paid to remote access to learning and, in both years, it was evident that lessons that could, or should, have been learned had not been heeded. Few, if any, jurisdictions put in place the necessary planning or preparation to proceed to remote learning in response to COVID-19. While some schools remained open throughout the entire 2020-21 school year, and a few even offered robust online learning instruction, most jurisdictions experienced province-wide school closures for up to 19 weeks and were forced to rely on remote learning. That remote learning saw limited success and an inequitable learning experience for many students due in part to that lack of planning and teacher preparation.

While it may be safe to say that in most provinces and territories teachers lacked the training and were unprepared to transition to remote learning, this was not necessarily the case in all jurisdictions. Some were better positioned to provide continuity of learning remotely than others. For example, Nova Scotia extended the 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 teachers access to their eLearning site and distributed assistive technologies for students requiring them.

British Columbia delayed implementing changes to its online learning programs (Government of British Columbia, 2021) 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., 2020). 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 for the 2020-21 school year (the model was dropped for the 2021-22 school year). Teachers were required to transition learning materials to a learning management system (such as Moodle, Google Classroom, or Microsoft Teams) and use that to track student progress whether they were attending school or while they were learning remotely. It is also worth noting that there were no province-wide school closures in BC during the 2020-21 school year, only local school closures during COVID-19 outbreaks.

Arguably, both British Columbia’s and Nova Scotia’s provincial models could support shifting between in-school and online/remote learning options, 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.

In Ontario, the government’s guide to reopening schools, announced May 4, 2021 (Wilson, 2021), required school boards to offer a remote learning option to parents, whether schools were closed or not (Davidson, 2021). The need to effectively plan for and train teachers for a model of shifting between in-school and remote learning could not be more clear. Yet there was limited evidence of this training being provided by the province. Even in the lead-in to the start of the 2021-22 school year, none of the plans announced by Ontario offered support or even envisioned the hybrid and concurrent teaching models that emerged to support continuity of learning during outbreaks and/or school closures.

The concurrent teaching model was unique to Ontario and dubbed as ‘hybrid learning’ but in reality, it was a concurrent teaching model with some students in the classroom and others remote[1]. This ‘live’ broadcast teaching model with students in the classroom and others logging in by video remotely (‘roomies and zoomies’) was implemented by many boards just before the start of the 2021-22 school year after the Ministry of Education’s published guide to school opening required boards to offer a remote learning option (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2021). While many boards already offered online learning programs that were quickly doubling in size, others were still unable to offer an online program that covered the full curriculum (King, 2021; Simcoe County District School Board, 2021) or lacked the necessary funding to create or offer an online learning program (Wong, 2021a). In essence, the concurrent teaching hybrid model was the only way that many school boards were able to meet the Ministry’s remote learning policy requirement.

Even before the start of the 2021-22 school year, the model had fallen under criticism (Stewart, 2021) and teacher unions pointed out its negative impact on both teachers and students (Fox, 2021). Stewart (2021) suggested the model forced teachers to use only teacher-led approaches at a simple, slowed-down pace (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, 2021b, para. 5).

While much of the remote learning provided across the country 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). More study about remote learning and its impact on students, teachers, and the overall education system is certainly called for and required across the country. It is hoped that some of the differences in policy and practice that emerged throughout the 2020-21 school year will become guides for politicians and policymakers across the country as schools continue to grapple with the demands of another pandemic school year and a future of disruption in the education system.

References

Barbour, M. K., LaBonte, R., & Nagle, J. (2020). State of the nation: K-12 e-learning in Canada. Canadian eLearning Network. https://k12sotn.ca/wpcontent/uploads/2021/05/StateNation20.pdf

Collins-Nelsen, R., Beier, J. M., & Raha, S. (2021, September 16). Bullying, racism and being ‘different’: Why some families are opting for remote learning regardless of COVID-19. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/bullying-racism-and-being-different-whysome-families-are-opting-for-remote-learning-regardless-of-covid-19-165063

Davidson, S., (2021, August 3). Ontario unveils back-to-school plan for September. Here’s what you need to know. CTV News Toronto. https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/ontario-unveils-backto-school-plan-for-september-here-s-what-you-need-to-know-1.5532926

Fernando, C., (2021, May 4). Some Black parents say remote learning gives racism reprieve. The Associated Press. https://apnews.com/article/lifestyle-race-and-ethnicity-healthcoronavirus-education-c41c99db0f325bf6d0a7fc6c527e1ea9

Fox, C. (2021, October 14). Toronto secondary school teachers speak out against hybrid learning. CP24. https://www.cp24.com/news/toronto-secondary-school-teachers-speakout-against-hybrid-learning-1.5623178

Gallagher-Mackay K, Srivastava P, Underwood K, et al. COVID-19 and education disruption in Ontario: emerging evidence on impacts. Science Briefs of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. 2021;2(34). https://doi.org/10.47326/ ocsat.2021.02.34.1.0

Government of British Columbia. (2021). What to expect during the 2021/22 school year. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/education-training/k-12/support/classroomalternatives/online-learning/2021-22

Herold, B., 2021. Why School Districts Are Unprepared for COVID-19 Disruptions, Again. EducationWeek, [online] Available at: <https://www.edweek.org/technology/why-school-districts-are-unprepared-for-covid-19-disruptions-again/2021/09> [Accessed 7 December 2021].

King, N. (2021 August 3). Fall plan for Simcoe County students. CTV News Barrie. https://barrie.ctvnews.ca/fall-plan-for-simcoe-county-students-1.5533115

Miller, E. (2021, March 1). For some Black students, remote learning has offered a chance to thrive. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/03/01/963282430/for-some-black-studentsremote-learning-has-offered-a-chance-to-thrive

Montreuil, C., Clarke, C., McLoughlin, M., McLaughlin, M., MacDonald, S., & Beaudry-Mellor, T. (2021). What do government heads know about the future of education? A panel discussion. Convergence Tech. https://youtu.be/qHa3LSUWNUM

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2021). COVID-19: Health, safety and operational guidance for schools (2021-2022). https://www.ontario.ca/document/covid-19-health-safety-andoperational-guidance-schools-2021-2022/specific-academic-programs-andrequirements#section-4

Simcoe County District School Board. (2021). COVID-19: Learn@home resources. https://www.scdsb.on.ca/covid-19/remote_learning_resources

Stewart, B. (2021). ‘Hybrid learning’ in Ontario schools will rob children of quality education. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/hybrid-learning-in-ontario-schools-willrob-children-of-quality-education-165135

Wilson, C. (2021, May 4). Ontario boards must offer virtual learning as option for entire 2021-22 school year, Ford gov’t says. CP24. https://www.cp24.com/news/ontario-boards-mustoffer-virtual-learning-as-option-for-entire-2021-22-school-year-ford-gov-t-says1.5413676

Wong, J. (2021a, August 29). Students pay the price for hybrid model of schooling, say parents, experts. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hybrid-learning-2021-2022- 1.6146818

Wong, J. (2021b, October 24). High schoolers, educators decry split focus of hybrid learning model. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hybrid-learning-high-school1.6217868


[1] For a detailed discussion of various hybrid student arrangements and configurations in the United State, see Arnett, 2021 (https://www.christenseninstitute.org/blog/wait-are-schools-actually-doing-blended-learning/).

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