Getting it Right: Online Learning in Public Schools

Good pedagogy is good pedagogy. This is a frequently cited phrase that suggests if we focus on building meaningful relationships, cultivating anti-oppressive practice, and delivering effective instruction that engages a diversity of learners, we can succeed teaching in any setting including online.

But success is not dependent upon good pedagogy alone. Technology is not a panacea to the chaos COVID-19 has thrown public schooling into, come this fall. 

Prior to school closures, most students who took e-learning were enrolled in postsecondary institutions, which often replaced large lectures or were combined with in-person learning. Postsecondary students are young adults and exercise greater learner autonomy; the younger the student, the more support they will need to learn online. Especially for elementary-aged children, for whom online learning is not always developmentally appropriate, having an adult to engage in play-based, physically interactive activities will be an important component for success. 

Public schooling is distinct from postsecondary because K-12 education is a right. This means the provincial government has a responsibility to ensure every student has access to quality education, including online. It is a privilege to opt-out of in-person learning, but opting-out still places a burden on families who will need to provide the support that will motivate their children to log-in, stay focused, and complete tasks. Even in the best online classroom, some students will need additional support at home. 

Given our growing reliance on e-learning to supplement and at times replace in-person learning, getting it right must consider variables beyond good pedagogy to make it successful. This includes access to a stable and reliable connection, flexibility in structure to meet varying learner autonomy, and community support for a safe well-resourced space to work.

Closing the digital divide: 

As a researcher of online learning and equity in secondary schools, one of the most urgent challenges facing students is the digital divide. In rural and remote communities across Canada, only 40% have enough broadband coverage to meet basic service speed; this impacts First Nation communities acutely. According to ACORN Canada over 80% of low-income households they surveyed found the cost of internet access extremely high and reference the CRTC, which reports only 59% of Canada’s lowest-income households have access to home internet. Further, the growth of income inequality reveals racial divisions, particularly in Black neighbourhoods disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Getting it right is socially just, especially for students who depend on institutions such as public schools and libraries to access internet hotspots. Not only do students have a right to public education, but also internet access.

Flexibility in structure:

Motivation is harder to sustain online, where students experience isolation, distractions, and technical difficulties. While it is easy to narrowly define motivation as an intrinsic or a personal attribute, dynamic social and contextual influences, including teacher care and attention, impact students to varying degrees. Younger students and students who need psychological proximity to learning activities will require higher levels of structure and interaction with the teacher; they may depend on synchronous instruction. Students who succeed with greater autonomy and control may prefer asynchronous instruction and find highly structured classrooms demotivating. No matter the age, many students will require an adult to coach them through their work, which presents an inequity we must address if we are going to get it right. 

How are we considering primary caregivers and parents in our planning? They are a key variable for success but must receive support to manage otherwise impossible circumstances, especially if they are working from home or are unable to navigate the schooling system. Support for families includes clear communication about student progress in a language they are fluent in; access to tutoring and supplemental supports to navigate technology and curriculum; and connections to programs and services to ensure well-being. Even online, schools must be treated as central to community life. 

Community Programming:

Getting online learning right means connecting students to local supports, especially if there are barriers to accessing a stable and reliable connection, a quiet environment that is well resourced, and an adult who can oversee a student’s coursework. If public education is a right and broadband internet an essential service, we have a responsibility to ensure students have a safe and well-resourced space to learn outside the home. Primary caregivers and parents can not be expected to assume this responsibility. From community centres to public libraries, repurposed civic centres and underutilized schools, we must provide access to physical spaces with infrastructure where students can safely learn online. Creative programming can integrate online access to a wider range of supports, such as educational assistants, child and youth workers, guidance and mental health counsellors, to ensure we are responding to the needs of the whole child. Students are more than their academic achievement.  

Getting online learning right requires a rights-based approach that centres students most marginalized in the public education system; they are at the greatest risk of falling further behind. We are not only in need of political will and long-overdue investments in infrastructure to learn online, but also a transformation in how we envision traditional courses. Success will strike the right balance between instructor proximity and learner autonomy, and integrate community resources to ensure every student is safe, supported, and engaged.

Beyhan Farhadi is a Postdoctoral Visitor in the Faculty of Education at York University, a secondary teacher with the Toronto District School Board, and a proud parent of children in the public education system. Her dissertation research examined the relationship between e-learning and educational inequality.

Those with young and school-aged children are caught in an anxiety-inducing parent trap. Parents are having sleepless nights fearing for their jobs while also being worried about the health and well-being of their kids. But we argue that it shouldn’t be this way. Solving the Parent Trap is a policy series on transforming childcare and education featuring ideas from Janet Davis, Nigel Barriffe, Marit Stiles, Beyhan Fahardi, Maria Dobrinskaya and is edited by Katrina Miller and Brittany Andrew-Amofah.

Beyond the Fight for Safe Schools

With just days before schools reopen across Ontario, school boards, education workers, parents and students still find themselves with more questions than answers — scrambling to put together plans for a safe return.

Board after board reformulate their plans, to then have them rejected by the Ontario government, and re-adjusted to only have the Minister of Education send out more new, confusing directives. Concerned parents, in Ontario, have flooded the voicemail of Minister Stephen Lecce and Premier Doug Ford, and built massive petition campaigns. And in astounding numbers, those with resources [financial and otherwise] are opting out of returning to school by hiring private educators, thinking it’s the only way to ensure the safety and health of their children and family members. 

It didn’t need to be this way. 

Ever since schools shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19 in March, the need to find a safe path to return our students to schools has been paramount. After months of the government showing no progress on a plan and no meaningful collaboration with frontline education workers or education experts, as the Official Opposition Education Critic, I introduced a motion outlining an action plan for a safe September. That plan sought a comprehensive approach to helping children and their families return to school, including; guaranteed paid sick leave for all workers so parents could stay home with sick or symptomatic kids; hiring thousands of more teachers and other education workers to allow for more, smaller classes; immediate and meaningful investment in school repairs and upgrades such as ventilation, touch-free sinks; more funding for school busses; more support for students with special needs, and a plan to address the disproportionate impact of COVID19 on racialized and low-income communities, among other recommendations. So far, few of these proposals have been addressed, and what money has been put forward will barely make a dent in the rising costs facing cash-strapped school boards.

So why won’t Ford put up the money to ensure smaller, safer classes? We only need to cast our thoughts back to a year ago, as parents, students and education workers joined forces to push back against Ford’s attempt to cut 10,000 teachers, inflate class sizes and introduce 4 mandatory on-line courses in high schools. Under the guise of ‘modernizing’ education and ‘building resilience’ among students, the Ford Conservatives’ have been engaged in the troubling trend of deep cuts to education since the beginning.  And here we are. The Ford government has found money to cover so many things. $25 million to hire more police, and hundreds of millions invested in the private sector for job creation. But not what’s needed to protect the quality of public education. 

But the mounting public pressure is having an effect. Ford and Minister Lecce have been forced daily to face the inadequacies of their plan. Their attempts to show they’re willing to do more have been for the most part hollow. The government’s recent announcement to allow Boards to access their “reserve funds” [money dedicated to high priority initiatives], despite there being little to no money there for many of these boards to even access, is infuriating. And if there were some reserves for benefits and liabilities, the government has announced no reimbursement plan to avoid depletion of these emergency funds.  

“Advocacy for smaller classes goes beyond the fight for safe schools, it’s about fighting for what Ontario’s education system could look like going forward.”

Ford’s steadfast resistance to funding safer, smaller classes in the face of the evidence raises serious questions about what their long-term plans are for our school system. How else to explain their focus on “parent choice’ in the return to schools, when they know too many have no choice at all. By sitting back and allowing the system to crack and fold in on itself, Ford and his Conservatives are creating an Ontario where the ‘haves’ choose private options ultimately subsidized by the government and “have nots” settle for a system seriously undermined by public confidence, starved of funding. Betsy de Vos would be proud.

The fight for smaller, safer classes continues. We can and will force the government to reduce class sizes and invest in protection for our students and staff. But have no doubt: this is about more than pandemic protection, it’s about the very future of public education. Our fight is the fight for our future.

Marit Stiles is the Member of Provincial Parliament for Davenport, the Education Critic for Ontario’s Official Opposition, a former Toronto District School Board Trustee and a proud parent of two public school-educated children.

Those with young and school-aged children are caught in an anxiety-inducing parent trap. Parents are having sleepless nights fearing for their jobs while also being worried about the health and well-being of their kids. But we argue that it shouldn’t be this way. Solving the Parent Trap is a policy series on transforming childcare and education featuring ideas from Janet Davis, Nigel Barriffe, Marit Stiles, Beyhan Fahardi, Maria Dobrinskaya and is edited by Katrina Miller and Brittany Andrew-Amofah.

BC’s Universal Child-care Program Is A Powerful Economic Stimulus Tool

The federal government’s response to the economic crisis needs to focus on supporting people as they try to return to work, and central to that for millions of households in Canada is childcare. But investing in childcare is not only critical for parents, but it’s also essential for our entire economy, and the best uses of both federal and provincial stimulus funding to encourage economic recovery, in the post-CERB-Canada (a term coined by Garima Talwar Kapoor, Director of Policy and Research at Maytree Foundation) that we now find ourselves in. Boosting child care will create service sector jobs, respond to both demand and supply-side shocks, and ensure parents, particularly women, are able to reenter the labour market. 

The COVID-19 induced economic recession is unique. While the Great Recession hit men, blue-collar workers and manufacturing particularly hard, the recent decline in economic activity has been felt primarily by women and the service sector. Across the country, women’s participation in the labour force is at its lowest levels in three decades. One and a half million women in Canada lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic. As of June, employment for women sits at 89.2% of its pre-COVID levels while a similar figure for men has jumped to 92.3%. 

Further, disruptions in education and child care systems have created a cascading effect preventing many parents from working at all. This is deepening the economic damage of the recession, introducing a strong supply-side effect, and setting us back decades with respect to gender in the workplace and women’s economic empowerment. 

“Child care provision is an optimal vehicle for stimulus spending by all levels of government.”

In the case of British Columbia, though the child care sector remained operational throughout the COVID emergency, there were already year-long queues in some communities prior to the crisis. Now, during COVID, the supply of available positions has declined meaningfully, with many parents, who are still employed, being forced to work at half productivity while trying to manage child care or unable to return to work at all.  As such, rapid investment in the childcare sector has the unique ability to allow people to return to work, directly employ individuals in the sector, and improve outcomes for children.

Following the mobilizing and successful momentum of the $10aDay childcare campaign, and the election in 2017 of a new government who had committed to implementing universal childcare, BC launched a childcare program in 2018. For this reason, the province is well-positioned to accelerate its long-run plan to substantially increase the supply of child care spaces. As such, some of the best uses of the province’s stimulus fund would be:

  • To utilize temporarily empty public spaces for child care. While this will be challenging with respect to meeting requirements for licensed care, it’s a worthwhile effort given the immediate need for physical space. 

  • To create more publicly owned facilities for child care provision.  In particular, appending new child care facilities to existing public buildings can be particularly cost-effective. 

  • To expand staffing in licensed care to rapidly increase the number of available child care spaces in the province. This could occur through a combination of increased wages and temporarily relaxed qualifications with requirements and/or incentives to receive appropriate training during or after the crisis, and active attempts to recruit out of the license-not-required sector.

In the short run, this will assist B.C. in returning to its previous level of child care supply. Over the long run, this increased capacity can be maintained as the province permanently on-boards more staff on the path to universality.  Further, while empty existing public spaces can be used for child care provision today, the capital plan can be utilized to expand publicly owned child care infrastructure for the post-crisis period.

While such programming does have substantial short-run costs, it has been well documented that there are large fiscal returns to universal child care over the long run. Given this, it’s important to note that childcare stimulus funding should not solely be the responsibility of provincial governments — but should also be a line item in the upcoming federal budget and laid out in the government’s Fall Throne Speech. 

Caregivers, mainly women, have been most impacted by the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. It is essential that governments be creative in stimulus spending to focus on service sector recovery; with a rapid expansion in child care provision being the best available policy for an economic shock that impacts both the supply and demand side. 

Investing in childcare is critical to ensuring a  strong recovery and creating the foundations for inclusive economic growth into the future.

Maria Dobrinskaya is the BC Director, overseeing the work of the Broadbent Institute in British Columbia. A creative political strategist and effective communicator, Maria is committed to expanding the political arena and increasing the access and involvement we can all have with our governments. Maria's article is an adaptation of The Broadbent Institute’s submission to B.C.Government’s Economic Recovery Consultation.

Those with young and school-aged children are caught in an anxiety-inducing parent trap. Parents are having sleepless nights fearing for their jobs while also being worried about the health and well-being of their kids. But we argue that it shouldn’t be this way. Solving the Parent Trap is a policy series on transforming childcare and education featuring ideas from Janet Davis, Nigel Barriffe, Marit Stiles, Beyhan Fahardi, Maria Dobrinskaya and is edited by Katrina Miller and Brittany Andrew-Amofah.

Be Bold Minister Freeland

Newly appointed minister of finance Chrystia Freeland faces the daunting task of putting Canada on the path to a more sustainable and equitable future. Inevitably, even while rightly continuing to run a large deficit for now, she will have to make some tough choices between competing, urgent priorities.

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