Ontario is mulling legislation that would make online education a permanent part of the public school system.
According to a ministry of education presentation first obtained by the Globe and Mail, it would give parents the option of enrolling their children in remote learning even after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, as well as require school boards to provide online school during snow days and other emergency school closures.
In the presentation, the province argues access to online school will help students who can’t attend physically, for example due to a medical condition, or who attend a smaller school that isn’t able to offer the courses they are interested in.
The ministry also lays out three forms of online school that could be offered:
- Full-day synchronous online learning for students of all ages, which would be run by the school boards and would be “useful for students who cannot or prefer not to access the physical school environment.”
- Individual high-school-level classes, taught online by teachers and run by school boards, that take place at a dedicated slot in the student’s timetable.
- Fully independent online learning for high school students who “prefer to learn asynchronously and at flexible hours.” This option would be run by TVO and would require the school board to pay a fee.
Asked about the possible legislation, a provincial spokesperson would say only that the province continues to “consult and engage with stakeholders on maintaining this choice for parents, and ensuring its availability this September.”
The provincial statement also points to new spending, announced in Wednesday’s budget, which is ear-marked for online learning and improving broadband internet.
Move ‘astonishing,’ says teachers’ unions
The news is already being met with criticism from teachers’ unions.
“I find it astonishing. I don’t know what problem it is that they’re trying to address,” said Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) president Harvey Bischof in reaction on Thursday.
Bischof said he hasn’t yet seen the confidential document but has been briefed by his staff.
“To create a permanent option to take kids out of the classroom where they develop not just academically but socially and emotionally … on the face of it, it’s absolutely counterproductive,” he said.
Earlier this month, Bischof had spoken to the CBC about instances where online learning is useful — for example, students who live in remote areas and want access to specific courses, or students who have an anxiety disorder.
But he says he’s deeply concerned by the plan to offer students access to independently-run online courses put on by TVO in English and TFO in French.
“It would appear they’re building a standalone infrastructure for the provision of online learning which could easily then be sold off to the highest bidder,” said Bischof.
According to the presentation, the goal would be to introduce the new legislation in May 2021, and to have the new system fully in place for the 2022-2023 school year.
E-learning caused controversy pre-pandemic
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, said he’s concerned the government is trying to undermine the public education system with its move.
“The move to virtual learning was never intended to be permanent,” he wrote.
“This plan will negatively affect students, increase inequities, lower standards in publicly funded education, and put us one step closer to the privatization of public education.”
But Thursday’s report shouldn’t come as a total surprise: prior to the pandemic, mandatory e-learning had been a sticking point in contract negotiations between the Ontario government and high school teachers.
After bargaining, the education ministry’s initial proposal to require four online credits to graduate high school was brought down to two.
There was also some online learning happening in Ontario through school boards long before the pandemic: the ministry presentation says 60,000 students did some form of remote learning in the 2018-2019 school year — a number that’s grown by about 16 per cent per year since 2011.
‘Different kids have different needs’
Education Minister Stephen Lecce also spoke about preserving the online option for students who want it earlier this month, saying at a news conference that “some students — a minority — they seem to really excel in online.”
“That’s based on the preference of a student in consultation with their parents, and that’s going to be preserved.”
At Credit Valley Public School in Mississauga, parents who spoke to CBC Toronto expressed a preference on in-person learning — but many weren’t opposed to the idea of a permanent online option.
“Different kids have different needs. They have different ways of learning, and I think definitely online school caters to a lot of them,” said parent Maryam Ghayur.
“For me, I wouldn’t choose that option,” said Yetunda Mustapha. “I think if it works for some kids, I think they should explore that.”