Susanna Kelley (Moderator): The province sent out a confidential document recently outlining the possibility of legislation making online learning a permanent feature of public schools. Is this a good idea for our students? We asked Sarbjit Kaur, David Wills and Chris Loreto.

Sarbjit Kaur:

It’s funny that during the pandemic the government insisted on keeping schools open, but after, it wants to go online.

There is absolutely no evidence that online learning is good for kids. In fact, quite the opposite, with kids struggling academically and mentally during COVID-19.

There’s certainly a case to be made for exploring this at the university and college levels, but for anyone younger there simply isn’t enough evidence to support such a move.

Seems like an excuse to fire teachers and save money.

Socialization and interaction are so important for children — having exposure to adults and children outside of their families, having access to a good education that is properly supervised and monitored, school breakfast and lunch programs, sports and other activities, even counsellors and adults who can be a point of contact for kids who need help. Mental health is already a real problem in this generation of kids.

Nobody knows exactly why but there have been strong links to the amount of time spent online and on screens and feelings of isolation and loneliness.

The diversity, equity and inclusion that we seek to promote in our communities also occurs naturally in schools. The younger years are crucial for lifelong character building. This isn’t the area to be using technology to save costs.

David Wills:

Sarbjit flagged the big issue — the lack of evidence and the lack of information in setting it up.

Is this a good idea for students? The correct answer is “I don’t know.” And neither does the Minister of Education.

The past 12 months have been an extraordinary time for students, parents, teachers and workers in the education sector. The one thing we do know is that there is a lot of added stress for everyone. The last thing students need is a major shift to something that has not been studied, planned for and thought out.

We remember that this was part of the government’s agenda before COVID-19, and it was clear it was about saving money, and according to reports, developing revenue streams for the Ministry.

If we learned anything the past year it is that we have an obligation to make learning better. Period. Not cheaper. Not with just more choice. Actually better.

Online learning could be part of that for some students, but it should be properly designed with students’ interests in mind.

The most telling part of all of this has been the Minister’s refusal to even talk with teachers and their unions. They have the direct experience with what worked this past year and what failed. They are the experts who should be designing any online components. To ignore them is almost ensuring it will not be done well.

Chris Loreto:

So, the folks who read us on a weekly basis may want to take a screen shot because we may all be in violent agreement.

This is a policy that cannot be rushed. As a father of five boys, I can tell you that online is very difficult on the student, on the teacher, and on the parents. And I must confess, even though we both work, the majority of workload has fallen on my wife. And I am sure this is very true for most families.

The big issue is pedagogy. It cannot be a lecture, or simply streaming the in-class lesson. Research is need to understand where, how, when, and with whom online learning is best used.

It is not a replacement for in-class — it should be used to augment the educational experience. I can see using online education to provide specialized learning to specific cohorts, but not simply an “election” out of in-class.

Add to this the fact, despite the government’s impressive commitment, reliable broadband is lacking in so many parts of this province, and it will create real inequities. If we are out at least three to five years on reliable broadband, then we may be out three to five years on a prudent, evidence-based online learning approach for Ontario.

Sarbjit Kaur:

I think we see now more than ever how important schools are.

Schools are really second homes for kids. And community hubs. We should be investing more in them and “making them great again” with mental health resources, recreational activities and more, right on the premises. Instead we’re letting them fall into a state of disrepair and putting up more portables.

People pay a good amount in taxes and other service fees. Time and time again we hear from residents that schools, transit, healthcare and social services need to keep up with development and population growth.

Like the move to allowing the 7-11 to sell beer, one wonders: Who is asking for this?

Also, as David mentioned they are not talking to teachers. That’s so disrespectful given the work they’ve done during the pandemic as essential workers.

Parents and kids will stand up for their teachers — this won’t be a popular move. Especially not now when everyone wants to get back to normal life and a huge part of that is going to school!

Like Chris, I’ve seen my own teens struggle with this arrangement. One is in university and I can see some pros for her — but not for the younger kids.

David Wills:

We all have some really good ideas here. Maybe we can suggest a tri-partisan working group of the three of us to work it out?

Right now, we are seeing a new COVID-19 wave that in all likelihood will result in another school shutdown. That’s probably why they are telegraphing a potential move of the March Break, again.

This means classes go back online and the parents of younger kids go back to supervising them.

My boys are older, and were able to self-manage for the most part.

But the stories of the teacher leading a grade four class while simultaneously managing her own small children were incredible. These are the people who should be designing any future online teaching.

For those who signed up to teach online the entire year, they will tell you how hard it is, how much more work it was, and how the outcomes were disappointing. It is not an equal substitute.

I’m glad this conversation is happening, as it really needs more thought and more input.

Chris Loreto:

Actually, an all-party effort is not a bad idea. If there ever was something for an all-party committee to look at, it is this.

Because the truth is, some level of online learning will be part of the education system of the future. It will need to be a basic skill for the workforce.

It is important to separate online learning and the right approach from the current context. Policy should be developed with a more normal environment in mind.

However, we also know that many more parents than expected opted for online at the beginning of this school year, and given the pace of vaccinations relative to variants, this will likely continue to be true this fall. So, the government will need to have short-term plan for the next school year.

But I would caution the government about making policy on the fly. This is not a partisan issue, this is a fundamental discussion about how education is delivered and how it will benefit or harm kids.

Some level of online learning is needed. It will become a bigger feature of post-secondary education, the workplace, and life-long learning. Building the study and other skills to consume content online is just as important as doing the same for the in-classroom experience.

It may also make sense in terms of offering a greater course selection at the secondary level where there is not the demand at a specific school to merit offering a course. Aggregating demand, using an online learning approach, could be one important way to expand offerings to students and offer specialization for students who know what they want to do — kinda like me in school, but definitely not like my own kids.

I do think the government deserves credit for starting the conversation on this. It is an important one, and I agree that teachers need to be at the table to design something that works for all involved.

We have basically delivered education in the same way for more than 150 years in this country. Like with all things, COVID-19 is forcing changes in business and delivery models, and education is no different.  

Chris Loreto is the 1st Vice President of the Ontario PC Party and previously served as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs in the Harris government. He is currently Principal at StrategyCorp.  David Wills is a Senior Vice President at Media Profile. He worked as NDP political staff at Queen’s Park and provides counsel to federal, provincial and municipal elected officials. Sarbjit Kaur has worked in Liberal politics for 20 years, including as Director of Communications to a cabinet minister in the McGuinty government. She is a former journalist and currently co -founder of KPW Communications.

The ONW Salon: Should Ontario make online learning permanent?

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