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Education Pandemic Policies and Practices: A Cross-Canada Analysis

Part 1: Cross Canada School Restart Plans

This is the first in a series of posts describing education policies and practices that have emerged from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic across Canada and discusses the differences that have emerged in the provinces and territories.  It follows a summary post published in December consolidating outcomes from the past year’s pandemic pedagogy series published on the CANeLearn.net and compiled for easy reference at https://sites.google.com/view/canelearn-ert/.  This first post describes the January 2022 school restart plans announced by governments across Canada.

 

Approaches to managing K-12 schools during waves of COVID-19 outbreaks have varied across Canadian jurisdictions, particularly during the January return to school amidst the surging Omicron variant.  The variation in approaches began at the start of the 2020-21 school year.  Nova Scotia, for example, directed teachers to provide both asynchronous (independent) learning in combination with live synchronous sessions and labeled it blended learning, although the term remote learning began to be used more often as it has across the country now.  In Ontario, the term hybrid learning emerged to describe live synchronous teaching with students in the classroom combined with classmates watching on screens at home as their teacher instructed peers in the classroom while trying to pay attention to those remote commonly labeled ‘roomies and zoomies’ (Stewart, 2021).  Finally, in British Columbia students were offered either in-person learning or access to one of the 69 public and independent online learning schools, and the term ‘remote learning’ was not used by the government and nor were there any province-wide school closures issued, only local school closures (Montreuil, et al., 2021).  Yet, in other jurisdictions, there were up to 20 weeks of school closures (Gallagher-Mackay, et al. 2021).  For a further discussion of jurisdictional responses, see Pandemic Planning, Policy, and Practice: A review of Canadian jurisdictional responses September 2020 to 2021.

 

Variation across jurisdictions has continued during the return to school after the holiday break in January 2022.  Some schools were opened to in-person learning as usual on January 4, some opened January 4 for in-person learning for high-risk students or children of essential workers only, while others delayed opening for one week to prepare for a safe return to in-person and opened January 10.  Still, others have delayed opening for in-person learning until as late as January 24.  The table below summarizes the return to school plans for Canadian provinces and territories as of January 13. 

 

 

Schools Open

In-person Learning

Remote Learning

Closure decision

BC

Jan. 4*

Jan. 10

Determined by school/district if there is a “functional school closure” due to outbreak or lack of staffing

Local

AB

Jan. 10

Jan. 10

Determined by school/district

Local

SK

Jan. 4

Jan. 4

Determined by school/district

Started Jan. 11

Local

MB

Jan. 10*

Jan. 17

Began Jan.10

Provincial

ON

Jan. 10

Jan. 17**

Began Jan.5

Provincial

QC

Jan. 6*

Jan. 17

Determined by school/district

Local

NB

Jan. 11

Jan. 21

Began Jan.11

Provincial

PE

Jan. 10

Jan. 21

Began Jan.10

Provincial

NS

Jan. 10

Jan. 17

Began Jan.10

Provincial

NL

Jan. 4*

Jan. 24

Began Jan. 4

Provincial

NU

Jan. 17

Jan. 24

To begin Jan. 17

Government

NT

Jan. 10

Jan. 21

by school, most remote to Jan.14 or 21

Local

YK

Jan. 4

Jan. 4

by school for outbreak or staffing issues

Local

* For high-risk students and children of essential service workers

** Originally announced as Jan. 5

 

Interestingly, only Saskatchewan and the Yukon opened schools to in-person learning for all students on the planned school start date of January 4.  British Columbia and Alberta opened to full in-person learning on January 10, while BC did open schools for high-risk students and those of essential workers.  As the Omicron variant transmission spiked, many opened with remote learning on January 10 and announced returns to in-person learning for January 17.  Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland-Labrador both extended that in-person reopening date to January 24 based on increasing COVID-19 cases.

 

While there has been wide variation in January school reopening, there are again similarities in the preparation for the safe return to in-person learning but with differences in when these measures will actually be in place.  For instance, most provincial and territorial governments, as well as the federal government, have made announcements about improving air quality through the use of better circulation and HEPA air filters, KN95 mask distribution, and the use of rapid tests to determine Omicron infection in staff and students.  As well, the use of physical distancing and cohort groupings are planned to reduce viral spread (see a summary of the measures in Ontario[1]).  While all governments have promised these measures, there are variations in the actual implementation of these measures throughout the provinces and territories (Hristova, 2022; Engel, 2022; Issawi, 2022; Davies, 2022).

 

Because of the variation in policies and approaches, it is difficult to speculate about learning and mental health impacts on students without substantial research, yet many have.  The reality is that schools have been open for in-person learning throughout the pandemic in some locations, shuttered for lengthy periods in others.  To generalize and make frightening claims that all remote learning is a ‘public health emergency’ and that “online learning is harmful”, as some paediatric associations have done, is simply irresponsible (Canadian Paediatric Society, 2022, para 5).  Schwartz (2021) found that most studies of teen mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic cited have not been peer-reviewed, or even based in Canada.  An impact analysis of adolescent mental health in Canada found that the deterioration in mental health during the early lockdown stages of COVID-19 was less than those found pre-pandemic (Bélange, et al., 2021) and a study of 1500 Alberta adolescents aged 12-18 over the last school year concluded that, while some youth report negative social and educational impact from remote learning, most responded to COVID-19 in ways that were developmentally and psychologically normal (Schwartz, et al., 2021).  This aligned with previous pre-COVID longitudinal studies in Canada and, contrary to the alarming headlines, indicate the majority of youth seem to be doing as well as they can.  Schwartz (2021) argued that “feeling sad or lonely is not depression; worry or nervous feelings is not anxiety” and that “literature that leads us to believe otherwise is unethical at best and clinically damaging at worst” (para. 15).

 

Traditional online learning in Canada was rarely the live, synchronous teacher-led instruction that we are seeing during the pandemic.  Online instructional practices evolved from the early distance education correspondence model to programs that now blend academics with community-based sports, field trips, social events, and social/emotional counseling.  What is happening in most remote teaching contexts is an attempt to project a classroom instructional model to students at a distance, with the “bums in seats” delivery model that exists in many physical classrooms.  It is a pedagogy that is mediocre at best. 

 

Given all of this, what can we learn from the past two years?  What is the correct approach to take to provide continuity of learning during pandemics?  What do teachers need to build successful learning for students stuck at home and not in school?  Why is it that social and news media posts claim that classrooms are the only places learning should occur for students despite evidence to the contrary?  Watch for part two of this three-part blog series from CANeLearn.

 

References

Bélanger, R., Patte, K., Leatherdale, S., Gansaonré, R., & Haddad, S. (2021). An Impact Analysis of the Early Months of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health in a Prospective Cohort of Canadian Adolescents. Journal Of Adolescent Health69(6), 917-924. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.07.039

Canadian Paediatric Society. (2022). Retrieved from https://cps.ca/uploads/advocacy/Remote_learning_in_ON.pdf

CJME News. (2022). Yorkton’s high school going to remote learning after jump in COVID cases. Retrieved 11 January 2022, from https://www.cjme.com/2022/01/11/yorktons-high-school-going-to-remote-learning-after-jump-in-covid-cases/

Davies, F. (2022). Push To Delay Return To School Continues In Quebec Amid COVID-19 Safety Concerns. Retrieved 16 January 2022, from https://newsconcerns.com/push-to-delay-return-to-school-continues-in-quebec-amid-covid-19-safety-concerns-national/

Engel, E. (2022). School boards confirm N95 masks arrived, unions argue it’s not enough. Barrie Today. Retrieved 16 January 2022, from https://www.barrietoday.com/local-news/school-boards-confirm-n95-masks-arrived-unions-argue-its-not-enough-4944508

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

Hristova, B. (2022). Hamilton schools waiting on N95 masks, HEPA filters as sources say in-person learning to resume. CBC. Retrieved 16 January 2022, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/education-vaccines-masks-hepa-1.6309911

Issawi, H. (2022). COVID-19: Teacher absences climb; City of Edmonton donates masks to schools; Alberta hits eight million vaccine doses. Edmonton Journal. Retrieved 16 January 2022, from https://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/covid-19-teacher-absences-climb-city-of-edmonton-donates-masks-to-schools-alberta-hits-eight-million-vaccine-doses

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

Schwartz, K. (2021). Not as good as we want, not as bad as we’ve heard: Teen mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic [Blog]. Retrieved 12 January 2022, from https://ucalgary.ca/news/not-good-we-want-not-bad-weve-heard-teen-mental-health-during-covid-19-pandemic

Schwartz, K., Exner-Cortens, D., Makarenko, E., McMorris, C., & Arnold, P. (2021). COVID-19 and Student Well-being Study: Wave 5 Summary September 2021 [Ebook]. Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. Retrieved 16 January 2022, from https://www.covidstudentwellbeing.com/

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

 


[1] https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/ontario-students-return-to-the-classroom-on-jan-17-here-s-what-you-need-to-know-1.5737303

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