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TVDSBBoardOffice

Asking “Who is, in fact, in charge here?” is a fair question, but it is now a “no-no” judging from a recent regular public meeting of an elected Ontario school board.  You may find yourself cut-off in mid-sentence, told to “stay positive,” then sanctioned by a Board Chair acting on behalf of elected trustees. That is exactly what happened on April 26, 2022 to Zorra Mayor Marcus Ryan when he attempted to address the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) raising the serious matter of glaring irregularities in recent governance practices.

The TVDSB’s handling of two recent issues – the disbanding of a Rural Education Task Force and the Director of Education overruling elected trustees on the mandating of masks – brought matters to a head.  Speaking up as a local Mayor and concerned citizen, Ryan got more specific: “Who makes the decisions about how one billion dollars of our tax money is spent on our children’s education in our communities? The board passes resolutions, but then the senior administration seems to do whatever they want.”

TVDSB Board Chair Lori-Ann Pizzolato interrupted Ryan to request he keep his remarks positive, then Trustee Corrine Rahman raised a point of order warning Ryan to be respectful of staff and trustees and consider the stress everyone has been under over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was abundantly clear, watching the TVDSB meeting on video, that Mayor Ryan was being silenced for having the temerity to “criticize the board” in public. Acting upon the advice of an in-house “parliamentary advisor,” the elected trustees no longer feel bound to listen to criticism, let alone respond to delegations challenging their decisions.

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Why do elected regional school boards exist if not to listen to and act on behalf of parents, taxpayers and local communities?  That is a pretty fundamental question worth pondering in the months leading up to the Ontario school board elections in October 2022.  What’s gone terribly wrong with elected regional boards? Whose interests do they represent?  Are any of the trustee candidates committed to re-engineering the system? If not, what should replace our top-down, senior administration dominated and unaccountable school boards?

Elected school boards always seem to be in crisis or threatened with extinction somewhere in Canada.  Close observers of Ontario education would be well aware of the troubled boards with a recent history of governance problems, including Limestone District School Board, Rainbow District School Board, York Region District School Board, and, most recently, Waterloo District School Board. Currently, Greater Victoria District School Board (BC District 61) is in turmoil and New Brunswick’s week sister imitation of regional boards, known as District Education Councils (DECs) are on notice.

Over the past two decades, New Brunswick’s hollowed-out version of elected regional boards has been in a gradual cycle of decline. Acclamation disease, plummeting voter participation, role confusion, and aversion to public engagement have all conspired to render the DECs largely irrelevant to most New Brunswickers. The DECs are on life support and that province’s activist Education Minister Dominic Cardy is looking seriously at decentralizing education governance.

Followers of Educhatter Blog will be familiar with my proposals to re-engineer education governance. My 2020 book, The State of the System, provides a detailed prescription, but it’s rather lengthy and a hard slog to get through.  So here is my “Coles Notes” version:

Adopt a “Community-School Governance Model”

Copying and pasting in an education model from elsewhere in Canada simply won’t work because each province is unique in its own way.  Most provinces still have conventional elected regional boards so New Brunswick is something of an anomaly.  Stepping back and taking stock of the differing local contexts, I still believe Ministers and their departments would be best advised to design and build what I term a “Community-School Governance Model” combining school-based governance/management with, in a second stage, completely re-engineered regional education development councils.

School-based management supported by school governing councils holds out exciting possibilities for creating a new education governance culture and revitalizing local school-level democracy. In designing the framework, the province would be well-advised to look first to the Edmonton Public Schools model of school-based management (SBM) and budget development process.  It is the best and most proven strategy for transitioning to a more decentralized form of educational decision-making.

The Edmonton model of SBM, adopted in 1976, and developed by Superintendent Dr. Michael Strembitsky in the 1980s, has stood the test of time. Alberta Education published a School-Based Decision-Making Guide in 1997 and opened the door to other boards adopting school-based budgeting. In 2003, when the World Bank started championing SBM in developed countries across the globe, a feature story in Time Magazine described Edmonton’s public schools as “the most imitated public school system in North America.”

Superintendent Darrel Robertson, in an August 2016 Edmonton Journal news story, reported that school-based decision-making was still going strong in the district. It remained the core philosophy because it successfully “empowers and engages staff, students and parents.”

FE1MichaelStembitskySchoolOpening2012

Governance Lessons – from New Zealand

New Zealand’s transformation to a decentralized governance under David Lange’s 1984-89 Labour government provides many valuable lessons for policy-makers. Faced with a tug-of-war with ten different education boards, Lange sought to reinvent government with his 1988 Tomorrow’s Schools initiative. It provided a blueprint for transformative education reform based upon the model of self-governing schools. Each school’s parents were authorized to elect their own board of trustees, the new legal entity entrusted with the educational and financial well-being of the school.

The N.Z. structural reform embraced school choice for parents and generated plenty of upheaval in its first decade before it solidified and gained acceptance. Twenty-five years after its inception, Cathy Wylie, lead researcher at NZCER, judged it a success overall, urging the NZ government to look at a system refresh rather than a return to “archaic” regional boards in any shape or form.

Creating a New Education Leadership Culture

Educational restructuring would not be deemed a success unless and until the top-down school system was turned right side up, building from the school level up.  School community-based decision-making will not happen on its own. It does require structural change to foster a new culture of more flexible, responsive educational leadership.  Simply put, we need to reprogram district administration to ensure that the system exists to serve the needs of children, teachers, parents, and local communities.

Regional school boards, as presently constituted, are far too bureaucratic, too big and unresponsive to be effective. Those who continue to argue for their retention on the grounds that they represent the people are, in the words of veteran Ontario educator Peter Hennessy, “missing the point” that “elective parent councils” have been established precisely because “the boards were and are out of touch with the grassroots.”

A Proposed Cure for the Local Democratic Deficit  

With school boards staggering from crisis-to-crisis, now is the time to transform the education governance system to cure the now-visible deficit in public accountability and local democratic engagement. The best course of action would be to announce a gradual, planned transition, replacing the existing regional education bodies with autonomous, elected, self-governing school councils. That sets a clear direction. It vests far more authority where it belongs, in school-level councils, and paves the way for the construction of a new community-based model of education.

Re-engineering local education governance will take time to get it right, so plan on implementing the change over 3 to 5 years. Invest heavily in public engagement and democratic education programming to attract and prepare a new cohort of school-level council members. Phase-out the existing regional boards and DECs and prepare for a roll-over in decision-making responsibility in two-to-three years’ time. While the school governing councils are under construction, plan for the re-establishment of regional coordination and planning bodies with membership drawn from the elected school governing councils.

Community-School Based Governance operates better when it is properly integrated into a broader regional and provincial governance system. Regional coordination is essential and that could come from newly-constituted regional coordinating bodies (i.e., District Education Development Councils).  Unlike the current unaccountable boards, they would have the political legitimacy that comes from being first elected at the school-level and be clearly accountable to the school communities.

What can be done to restore local democratic accountability in Canadian K-12 provincial education systems? Can elected regional bodies be saved or is it better to start again, rebuilding from the schools up?  Which provincial government will be first to embrace more decentralized school-level education decision-making?  What democratic accountability benchmarks do we need to assess the effectiveness of such governance reforms?

HouseThatRyersonBuiltEgertonRyerson

Toronto’s first Normal School for teacher training, the former Ryerson University, has a new name — Toronto Metropolitan University. CBC-TV’s The National newscast on April 26, 2022, covered the story with a short piece presented through the eyes of Indigenous social work student Sarah Dennis of Nipissing First Nation who led the campaign to remove Egerton Ryerson’s name from university because of what the CBC termed “concerns” about “his links to Canada’s residential schools.” Removing the Ryerson name from the university was a fait accompli after a band of marauding students defaced and toppled his statue in early June 2021, and the university’s Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force, made it one of their key recommendations.

Since the remains of 215 Indigenous residential school students were uncovered in Kamloops in late May 2021, the urgency of acting upon the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s Calls to Action has affected all of us.  Horrible injustices happened in those Canadian residential schools and it’s high time to make amends. Speaking at Ryerson University in June of 2016, Commission Chair Murray Sinclair laid bare that tragic legacy and warned that “getting to reconciliation was going to be harder” than “getting to the truth.”  He also praised Ryerson University for its “commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion” noting “that is what his namesake now stands for.” No mention was made of changing the university’s name.

Watching that recent CBC-TV newscast upset me greatly as an Ontario-born and educated professor of education with a Doctorate of Education from OISE specializing in the history of Canadian education. What was truly disconcerting about that mainstream news report and most others was that it not only completely ignored Ryerson’s fundamental role in founding and shaping the Ontario public school system and instead perpetuated the questionable claim that he was “one of the primary architects of the residential school system.”

While historical figures move in and out of favour with the tides of popular opinion, the toppling of Egerton Ryerson in such a fashion is an outrage. Simply put, Canadian education history without Ryerson is like Shakespeare without Hamlet. It’s unthinkable that his American counterpart, Horace Mann of Massachusetts, would ever be treated with such disregard. Most surprising of all, none of the ranking academics in the Canadian History of Education Association (CHEA) have breathed a word, leaving his defense up to a courageous band of prominent history scholars, high school history teachers, public policy experts, and progressive reformers, many steeped in the Methodist ‘social gospel’ tradition.

Reverend Adolphus Egerton Ryerson was the undisputed founder of public schooling in Canada West (Ontario) and an unlikely candidate for vilification.  Two of his greatest defenders, Ryerson University professors Ronald Stagg and Patrice Dutil, provided an assessment starkly different than that of the Standing Strong Task Force report.  Ryerson, they pointed out in April 2021, was “one of the most influential figures in the history of Upper Canada and was in his day considered the very paragon of the forward-looking, progressive, inclusive, worldly intellectual. He was a beacon of educational reform, a fighter against injustice of all sorts, and a kind and generous man. A Methodist minister, he pushed for religious equality and has long been celebrated as the founder of Ontario’s public school system.”

As Superintendent of Education, the newly appointed Ryerson drafted the Common School Act in 1846 that established universal free access for children to schooling in Ontario. As a devout Protestant Methodist reformer, Ryerson campaigned fiercely against the Church of England (Anglican) as the state church and in favour of a more populist brand of social gospel Christianity and a broader form of democratic citizenship. Common schools, in his view, had a socializing task and should be built upon a Christian moral foundation, especially given the precarious nature of the colony, labour unrest, and divisive Christian sectarianism. Among his contemporaries, he exhibited “a spirit of egalitarianism” and openness to including the labouring classes and the poor in the public schools, in stark contrast to the more elitist Anglican thinkers of the time.

Ryerson fell short of being the “mythical hero” presented in the seminal education histories of Charles Phillips and C.B. Sissons, and later Canadian revisionist scholars such as Alison Prentice, J.D. Wilson, Robert Gidney, and Bruce Curtis revealed that his educational philosophy sought, in some ways, to implant “middle class values and attitudes” and to impart the virtues of industriousness, cleanliness, obedience, discipline and control. By the standards of his time, he still did not fit the label “conservative” because of his distaste for upper crust Anglican elitism and his Methodist reform instincts.

RyersonStatueDefacedRyersonStatueToppled

Canada’s Indigenous residential schools were horrible institutions and, especially since the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, anyone painted with the brush of association is tainted and bound to suffer consequences.  While Ryerson is blamed for instigating residential schools, that’s not quite accurate, to say the least. He did not invent the residential school because it was British colonial policy long before he took office. His views were shaped during 1826-1827 while he was missionary to the Mississaugas of Credit River and unlike many white settlers, he was neither ignorant or disrespectful of Indigenous people.

Working with the Mississaugas, Ryerson met and became a close friend of Methodist Ojibwe minister Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and supported their claim to a land base at the mouth of the Credit River.  For a decade after he left the mission, notably during an 1836-37 trip to England, Ryerson continued to press from the British Colonial Office protection for the Anishinaabeg’s remaining land base in Upper Canada.  Furthermore, Reverend Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882) died before “Indian boarding schools” became federal government policy (in 1883) and it’s those compulsory institutions which stand accused of being vile instruments of cultural genocide.

Ryerson’s involvement with what came to be federal Indian residential schools was limited to providing the Indian Department of the United Canadas with a 3000-word 1847 letter containing recommendations. The oft-cited recommendation read as follows: “It is a fact established by numerous experiments, that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings. Indians should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English-only and agriculturally-oriented (industrial) institutions.”  While his proposed framework may have carried some influence, Ryerson was not involved in the formulation of the policy.

Much like Peter Jones, he was concerned about the potential for cultural and economic displacement and favoured agricultural training schools, or “industrial schools” to prepare young men for changes in agriculture. Such thinking was popular at the time, especially among those familiar with the American Methodist Shawnee school considered “a progressive venture” possibly worthy of imitation. Two Methodist Indian schools established under his watch, Mount Elgin at Munceytown and Alnwick at Alderville were voluntary and entirely church-run institutions. It must be noted, in fairness, that Ryerson, like most of his contemporaries, permitted segregated schools to be established in Canada West and accepted the fact that, in many places, “prejudices and feelings are stronger than the law.”

Removing Ryerson’s name and expunging his legacy would have caused my dear old OISE professor, the late Willard Brehaut, author of  the lead essay in the 1984 book “The House that Ryerson Built,” to roll in his grave. As a former PEI School Inspector and founding OISE faculty member, Brehaut would have been shocked to learn that the enabling report made only passing reference to a “claim” that he founded the Ontario school system and made no mention whatsoever of a few of the enduring educational legacies of his 32 years in office:

  • A universal, free elementary education for all children
  • Authorized standard textbooks, the “Ontario Readers”
  • Establishment of Normal Schools (teacher’s colleges)
  • Professional certification of teachers
  • Teacher regulations – duties and responsibilities
  • Creation of local school boards and school districts
  • Compulsory school attendance law
  • Recognition for Roman Catholic separate schools
  • Established school divisions: elementary, secondary and collegiate levels

The facts speak for themselves: Superintendent Egerton Ryerson set in motion the creation of a modern, progressive public school system, and his masterful defense of common schools was utilized by chief superintendents in other provinces. In Brehaut’s words, the “main forces and trends that shaped Ontario public education” could all be traced back to the architect of the system, Egerton Ryerson.

Confronting grave injustices should not make matters worse by committing further injustices.  Without inflating or glorifying Ryerson’s role, it’s hard to ignore the significance of his 1846 report and his profound impact on the shaping of the system. Removing his name from Ryerson University and Toronto’s first Normal School simply does not pass the test of fairness.  Street justice, justified by a commissioned and one-sided university report, was administered swiftly without sober second thought.  It’s up to historians to call out glaring examples of presentism which fail the test of historical accuracy and violate the fundamental principles of sound historical thinking, for the sake of future generations.

Was erasing Egerton Ryerson’s legacy as founder of the Ontario school system and removing his name from the Toronto university justified – and, if so, on what grounds? How much weight should we put on a singular act in a career at Superintendent of Education spanning 32-years?  Where’s the evidence to support the allegation that Ryerson was a “racist” by the standards of his time? What lessons can be learned from the Ryerson University administration’s handling of this crisis? 

LearningLoss

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian K-12 education system is gradually regaining its consciousness after multiple shocks.  Three years ago, Ontario education occupied a bubble and the architects of its current school system were fond of routinely referring Ontario as “the learning province” with  a “world class system.”  Prominent Canadian school promoters who saw the COVID-19 education crisis as a golden opportunity to “build back better” with a focus on enhancing social and emotional learning are now beginning to confront the post-pandemic realities.

Now an Ontario education research report produced in April 2022 has dared to break with the official line.  “CANADA HAS BEEN A LAGGARD ON EDUCATIONAL RECOVERY” it proclaimed – and in capital letters. That report on “Educational Recovery” produced by the Laurier University Centre for Leading Research in Education spearheaded by Dr. Kelly Gallagher-Mackay confirmed what international education researchers, most notably Western University’s Dr. Prachi Srivastava, have known for some time. Venturing outside the Ontario-centric education world it’s clear that “other countries have invested far more than Canada in learning recovery and started sooner.”

Most of what Canadian educators know about COVID-19 school disruptions and “learning loss” come from evidence-based data research originating the United States, Britain, and the EU. So, it’s no surprise that the United States and the United Kingdom are way ahead of us in producing learning recovery strategies and programs.  The US has already allocated $2741/student (in Canadian dollars) and the UK $531/student, according to Britain’s Educational Policy Institute. Britain made its initial commitment in September 2020 and funding for learning recovery programs was flowing in the US by January 2021.  In comparison, Ontario has only committed $72/student divided up into support for learning recovery, special education and mental health.

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The student data deficit was revealed for all to see in February 2022 in a very useful People for Education  pan-Canadian scan of Canadian K-12 COVID-related education plans conducted after two years of disrupted schooling. While all provinces and territories were found to have public health safety strategies for schools, few were engaged in “data collection” or had   anything approaching a vision or plan to manage, assess or respond to learning loss or the psych-social impact of mass school closures. None had allocated sufficient funding to prepare for post-pandemic recovery.

Why has Canada lagged behind in recognizing learning loss and getting its policy response act together? That’s not even a question raised in the report. The reason is self-evident to those familiar with Ontario’s educational gatekeepers, recognized stakeholders and researchers in that orbit: Most of the key education influencers and interest groups, particularly in Ontario, exhibit “student assessment aversion” and have resisted, for decades, system-wide student assessment aimed at monitoring and addressing learning gaps and shortfalls student achievement.  In normal times, it  passed unnoticed; but not now when we are facing a formidable learning recovery mission.

The Laurier University report is a credible piece of research, but it, too, came wrapped in what amounted to a politically-driven declaration. That “If I had 1.08 billion dollars” media release has to be one of the dumbest ever to accompany an education research report. Instead of addressing the absence of testing, data-gathering, and negligence in preparing recovery plans, it captured the collective “wish-list” funding appeals of the 34 system insiders assembled by Toronto-based People for Education as part of the background research.

Most of the “education leaders” invited to the January 2022 pre-report symposium were invited to “pitch interventions or approaches” – an open invitation to present familiar funding appeals and pet projects. The result was predictable – a panoply of the usual remedies, including more funding for student well-being, learning supports, supply teachers, psycho-social specialists, and equity initiatives. Almost crowded out on that list was the point of the whole exercise – launching “a renewed approach to educational data and evidence.”

The section of the report focusing on addressing the student data deficit is rife with contradiction. While there’s acknowledgement that “educational data” is now critical to addressing COVID-19 learning impacts, the proposed action plan is fuzzy and contradictory.  Collecting data may be desirable, but there was no consensus on which data or for what purpose. The University of Waterloo research of Scott Leatherdale is trotted out because his COMPASS study is “population-level, longitudinal data” youth public health study is conducted at a distance from the system.

What’s missing from the report is any reference whatsoever to the relevant research conducted on “learning loss” produced by OISE researcher Scott Davies and Janice Aurini, a colleague of Professor Leatherdale. When it comes to provincial testing, the report notes that some participants called for a “pause” or complete halt to the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests administered in grades 3, 6 and 9 in Ontario. That’s far from an endorsement of the one Ontario student assessment program capable of filling the data deficit identified as a critical policy issue.

Why is student assessment across the system still a bugaboo two years into an educational crisis with recognized adverse impacts upon student learning?  Is it a matter of ideologues opposed to provincial testing refusing to recognize the new realities? If “data collection” and “learning loss” is such a problem, can it be addressed without reinstituting provincial testing? Or is this essentially a smokescreen to stave off a day of reckoning when we actually see what COVID-19 school disruptions have done to the pandemic generation of students?

 

MasksSchoolsBBC

The latest COVID-19 variant is “spreading like wildfire” in and around schools by all accounts. With daily case counts reaching 100,000 in Ontario, teachers and parents, with the support of Toronto infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, are speaking out demanding that mask mandates be re-instated and similar movements are afoot in New Brunswick and all other jurisdictions without such mandates.

“COVID-19 is not over” is the rallying cry as teachers and education workers report record student and staff absenteeism – and are now openly challenging public health authorities to respond to mushrooming case counts.  Masking up in schools has become a strange kind of proxy for public trust in medical science and our public health officials. That’s the underlying but fundamental public policy issue, two years into the never-ending pandemic.

The counsel of chief medical officers of health, once considered unbiased, Manitoba physician Jillian Horton aptly pointed out, is now  being challenged as simply parroting the latest gyrations of politicians.  It hasn’t helped that the CMOHs, in Ontario and elsewhere, went relatively quiet over the past month.

One of the clearest statements came from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA).  The province’s third largest teachers’ union appealed to the province on April 8, 2022 to undo the decision to end masking in all schools on March 21 because teacher and student absences due to COVID-19 are causing “whiplash disruptions to the learning environment.”

Surging case counts and high absenteeism are causing havoc in  many school districts, including the London-based Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and in Scarborough, where one Catholic elementary school of 540 students averaged over 100 student absences a day last week. Similar absentee rates have been registered in mask-mandate-free New Brunswick schools

Lifting mandates with students and staff returning from March break has precipitated a raging controversy, especially in New Brunswick. With the post-March break COVID-19 surge breaking out, the latest Omicron BA.2 variant running rampant and restrictions lifting, Education Minister Dominic Cardy balked at reinstituting masks in schools. “Leave it up to the experts” was his repeated response.

Concerned parents and worried teachers, seeing first-hand evidence of mounting case counts, organized a Change.org petition in early March and began speaking-out, demanding the return of masks and fuller disclosure of actual case counts and rates of absenteeism. The “Protect our Province” (PoP) petition for masks in schools appeared in early March and immediately attracted some 700 signatures Post-March break fears drove the number of signatories up to 1,300 by March 17 and stood at 1,514 in early April.

In the first week of April, a group of 19 pediatricians answered the Minister’s call for expert opinion. “We do not believe we are out of the woods yet with the COVID-19 pandemic,” they wrote in an open letter to Minister Cardy, Premier Blaine Higgs, Chief Public Health Officer Jennifer Russell, and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.

New Brunswick’ pediatricians confirmed that COVID-19 was an airborne virus, masking and vaccinations were the best protections against infection, and it was time to bring back masking for the rest of the school year. That was to no avail because Minister Cardy kept insisting it was up to public health and Dr. Russell weighed-in holding firm on resisting a mask mandate in schools.

While New Brunswick politicians passed the ‘hot potato’ back and forth, COVID-19 case counts were ripping through the whole Atlantic region. At the time Atlantic Canada had the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in Canada.

On April 2, the Canada Health Agency reported that Prince Edward Island ranked first among the provinces and territories with 350.6 daily cases per week in the final week of March, registering 2,216.6 average daily cases per million.  New Brunswick ranked fifth with 567.0 average daily cases per million, a higher rate of infection than Quebec and Ontario.

When the case counts were released, New Brunswick was also an outlier. Students in Nova Scotia were still required to wear masks and New Brunswick was more restrictive in providing access to testing. In N.B., PCR testing was only available to those over 50-years-of-age, or under two years, or those deemed to be vulnerable or at higher risk.

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Entering our third year of the pandemic, provincial public health officers are committed to keeping schools open for the mental health and well-being of children, but, beyond that, they are all over the map, especially on disclosure of case counts, access to testing, and precautionary measures.

Requiring masks to be worn indoors in schools is a perfect example. On the same day that Prince Edward Island’s medical officer Heather Morrison announced masking in P.E.I. schools would continue, her New Brunswick counterpart Dr. Russell held a media briefing to announce the opposite. While strongly encouraging students and staff to mask-up on their own, Russell claimed that “vaccination is actually more important” at this point in the pandemic.

Navigating our way out of the pandemic is proving to be an uncertain journey full of contradictions.  Following the wisdom of the “experts” in government appears to mean different things from one province to another. It’s made more perplexing when leading pediatricians, most notably Dr. Andrew Lynk and his team at Halifax’s IWK Children’s Hospital, change their positions in response to surges in infections affecting children. That sounds like following the science.

If determining whether mask mandates are necessary is truly based upon medical science evidence-based criteria, one might expect more consistency right now.  What is a medical necessity for some, is a restriction on freedom for others.  When public health experts disagree, someone has to make a decision. Intervening to settle the matter opens the door to further criticism from skeptics hyper-sensitive to any sign of the politicization public health decisions.

What has happened to public trust in our provincial public health officers? With the latest COVID-19 variant ripping through schools and communities, why is there resistance to reinstituting mask mandates in schools?  Is the whole question of mask mandates become a proxy for trust in public health authorities?

OHRCRighttoRead

Three weeks ago, the earth shook in Ontario and sent reverberations across the Canadian system of education. The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that children had “the right to read” and were being denied it in that province’s schools. Most “learning disabilities” labels were actually the result of reading failures, the latest OHRC inquiry found. And most tellingly, students from disadvantaged communities were the most likely to bear the brunt of ineffective reading instruction in elementary schools.

Thousands of Ontario parents with children struggling to read have now broken the silence. Over the past two years, they came forward, sometimes with their kids, to provide heart-wrenching personal testimonies about how current early reading programs have failed them. On February 28, 2022, that Commission, headed by Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire and backed by the latest evidence-based research, simply demolished prevailing methodologies and programs which left far too many kids unable to read to a level of functional literacy.

An estimated nine out of ten children are capable of learning to read when provided with the proper instruction. That factoid, generated by International Dyslexia Association (IDA Ontario) research, was confirmed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The fundamental problem is that one-third of our youngest students, the vast majority enrolled in so-called “balanced literacy” programs, simply cannot read with the fluency needed in today’s world.

Starting in October 2019, the Right to Read inquiry looked at a representative cross-section of eight English language school boards, including Peel District School Board and Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and all 13 English-language faculties of education and Ministry of Education sanctioned curriculum. In addition to listening to a multitude of concerned parents, the inquiry tapped into the research expertise of leading learning disabilities researchers, including Linda Seigel of the University of British Columbia and Jamie Metsala of Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University.

While Chief Commissioner DeGuire refrained from pointing fingers, it was clear that current early reading methods were not working and the commission got a “mixed response” from education faculties regarding the findings. That’s no surprise because most faculties provide little if any preparation informed by the science of reading and model curricula based upon the ‘balanced literacy’ dogma peddled by the dominant learning resource providers.

OHRCRightoReadDeguireOHRCRightToReadClass

When one-out-of-three students graduate without reaching provincial or international standards, someone, somewhere, has to assume responsibility for the outcomes. Vulnerable students – those from impoverished and marginalized communities – were already struggling before the two-year-long pandemic school disruptions. OHRC’s legal counsel Reema Kawaja said it best: “No child should go to school for 14 years and not learn to read.”

Current reading instruction methods are deeply entrenched and their defenders have succeeded, for three decades, in sinking periodic assaults on that hegemony. Generations of elementary teachers have stayed the course, rebranding ‘whole language,’ applying the reading recovery band-aid, and fuzzing up the whole question with ‘balanced literacy’ providing continued cover for those same methods.

This transition has been facilitated and enabled by Canada’s faculties of education where teachers are introduced to literacy programs and inculcated in provincially-sanctioned texts and learning materials, exemplified by Fountas & Pinnell, North America’s largest purveyor of ‘balanced literacy’ learning resources, teacher training, and classroom assessment tools.

New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy was one of the first off-the-mark in reacting to the Right To Read findings. With news of the earth-shaking February 28 Ontario report breaking, he took to Twitter with another impossible-to-ignore and quotable declaration heard across the K-12 education world.

“Our approach to reading instruction was a disgrace,” Cardy tweeted. “We gave teachers a job and didn’t give them the tools to do it. For me, this is the biggest education scandal of the last fifty years.” Just in case you thought Minister Cardy was simply blowing-off steam, he repeated his claim for Brunswick News in much greater detail.

Minister Cardy and his Department were one of the first to wade into the latest iteration of the ‘reading wars.”  “It’s crazy,” he told Brunswick News. “[There are] two camps. One is based upon reality, and one is not. And for a long time, we followed the one that is not based upon reality.”  Like the thousands of Ontario parents, Cardy challenges the prevailing theory that “if you surround [children] with lots of books, they will learn how to read.”

The Right to Read inquiry report may well tip the balance and, it should be noted, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce was quick to endorse the report and its 157 recommendations for change The most critical of those is Recommendation 30 which fully embraces systematic reading strategies, including phonics, and rejects the still popular ‘three-cue’ guess-the-word methodology.

What is astounding is that the OHRC actually spelled-out in detail the key requirements to successfully teach and support all students:

“ Curriculum and instruction that reflects the scientific research on the best approaches to teach word reading. This includes explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, which teaches grapheme to phoneme (letter-sound) relationships and using these to decode and spell words, and word-reading accuracy and fluency. It is critical to adequately prepare and support teachers to deliver this instruction.

Early screening of all students using common, standardized evidence-based screening assessments twice a year from kindergarten to Grade 2, to identify students at risk for reading difficulties for immediate, early, tiered interventions.

Reading interventions that are early, evidence-based, fully implemented and closely monitored and available to ALL students who need them, and ongoing interventions for all readers with word reading difficulties.

Accommodations (and modifications to curriculum expectations) should not be used as a substitute for teaching students to read. Accommodations should always be provided along with evidence-based curriculum and reading interventions. When students need accommodations (for example, assistive technology), they should be timely, consistent, effective and supported in the classroom.

Professional [Psycho-educational] assessments, should be timely and based on clear, transparent, written criteria that focus on the student’s response to intervention. Criteria and requirements for professional assessments should account for the risk of bias for students who are culturally or linguistically diverse, racialized, who identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, or come from less economically privileged backgrounds. Professional assessments should never be required for interventions or accommodations.”

The OHRC inquiry report provides plenty of sound research and detailed policy guidance for Ontario, New Brunswick, and other provinces . By the end of next year, 2022-23, the New Brunswick version will be in place in Kindergarten to Grade 2.  It’s already being implemented in a few Ontario pilot schools, including those in the York Region Catholic Distract School Board, north of Toronto, and the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board was the first to commit to acting on the OHRC recommendations.

Tackling the problem will not be easy because prevailing ‘balanced literacy’ approaches are deeply entrenched in most faculties of education.  One of the first to cast a stone was Shelley Stagg Peterson, professor of literacy at OISE/University of Toronto, and , since then, Brock University professor Diane Collier, who represents a group of literacy researchers from nine different education faculties Ontario.

“Reading English is not phonetical; it is visual,” Stagg Peterson wrote in an Ottawa Citizen Letter to the Editor. “If a child has a good visual memory, he or she will be able to read anything they can understand by the end of grade one.”  Then came a couple of astounding statements: “Poor readers can have wonderful careers in many fields. Phonics is a useful tool in learning to read but it is not a method.”

Education faculty literacy professors have rallied in defense of the dominant pedagogy and mandated resources.  “There is no one-size-fits-all for reading,” Professor Collier told CBC News. “A highly systematized, step-by-step approach is not necessarily accessible for all students who have all kinds of needs, so it could further marginalize readers.” Their counter-strategy is clear – paint the Right To Read findings as an endorsement of “phonics” and attack it as advocating a “narrow” approach, sidestepping the findings and the ineffectiveness of current methods.

The Ontario Right To Read inquiry report put existing literacy programs on notice but their defenders, ensconced in the education faculties, are not about to yield or give ground when learning resource alliances and training contracts are at stake. Reading reformers now know that it’s going to be a long siege and will require vigilance throughout the implementation process.

Will the Right to Reading Inquiry tip the balance in the ongoing “Reading Wars”?   What’s entirely different about this latest phase in the struggle to introduce the Science of Reading into classroom practice? What role do giant learning resource publishers and consultants play in perpetuating the status quo in the form of ‘balanced literacy’?  Will provincial learning consultants and education professors recover and succeed in gaining control of curriculum reform implementation?

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Regional school boards are gradually losing their democratic legitimacy and always seem to be threatened with extinction in one province or another across Canada. All seven of Nova Scotia’s elected English boards were sacked in favour of Regional Centres of Education (RCEs) in early 2018, and Manitoba school boards were recently spared the axe and linger on now claiming to represent the “public voice” in K-12 education. With school governance reform in the air in New Brunswick, that province’s hollowed-out substitute for elected boards, District Education Councils (DECs), are next in line for review.

Deeply troubled by New Brunswick’s current review of education governance options, Canadian School Boards Association (CSBA) president Laurie French produced another ‘Hail-Mary’ opinion column. It would be tragic, she claimed on January 24, if New Brunswick’s District Education Councils (DECs) were swept away in the coming reform.  With school boards under increasing public scrutiny from province-to-province, salvaging that province’s weak sister version of elected school boards has taken on new urgency.

What was remarkable about the CSBA appeal is that it simply repeats the usual feel-good bromides that seek to create the illusion of solving the problem. Salvaging the DECs in their current form would only maintain the façade of ‘local decision-making’ because the regional bodies have simply lost all claim to democratic legitimacy.  Acclamation disease is rampant and voter participation in free-fall, and it is looking, more and more, like it’s time to completely re-invent governance to restore meaningful public voice in that K-12 education system.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the DEC ship will not likely prevent it from capsizing in the coming year. Tuned-out citizens and turned-off parents sent a powerful message in the May 2021 local elections. Out of 68 DEC seats, only 18 (or 26.4 per cent) were contested, leaving the rest ether filled by acclamation or vacant because no candidates surfaced before election day. In Anglophone district council elections, the average participation rate plummeted to 15.6 percent, down from 19.2 per cent in 2016. Only 22,035 electors out of 140,633 cast votes, half the number who voted five years ago.

A post-election survey of electors, conducted by Elections NB and based upon 400 respondents, revealed that some 40 per cent did not vote for certain contests, mostly school district and health authority positions, because they were “not interested.”  Delving more deeply into their reasons, the most common explanation was “I did not know enough about who was running.”  One general comment jumped out: “We didn’t know who they were. And I talked to a lot of people who voted that felt the same way.”

School district governance is in a truly sorry state when few want to run for DEC seats and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Chief electoral officer for Elections NB Kim Poffenroth was absolutely right. “Persuading people to run,” she told CBC News, “in not part of our mandate.” Indeed, and the problem runs far too deep to be amenable to such unconvincing public entreaties.

Claiming that DECs are comparable to elected school boards with trustees representing education districts is almost farcical, given the constraints and limits placed on the authority and responsibilities of local councillors. Most DEC members are completely under the thumb of district administration and that’s plainly obvious watching DEC meetings online.

The DEC coordinating group of chairs, guided by DEC manager Stacey Brown, enjoy privileged access to the Minister of Education, and function more like a private social club than a corporate board. Without any term limits, DEC ‘boardies’ such as Harry Doyle (2008 – Present) and Robert Fowler (2004-2021) come to occupy sinecures. When Fowler stepped down after 16 years, he was succeeded by veteran Joe Petersen (2008-Present) with 35 years of service, including time on his local school support committees.

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Twenty-seven years ago, local education democracy was far healthier under the former elected school boards. In the last school board elections (1995), 196 school trustees were elected or acclaimed for 245 elected positions, and 49 had to be appointed. Instead of acting on the key recommendation of the 1992 Commission on Excellence in Education to strengthen school board accountability, then Education Minister Paul Duffie announced, without consultation or warning, that all school boards would be eliminated and elected trustees removed from office, effective March 1,1996.

Since being established in 2001, DECs have focused almost exclusively on system maintenance and utterly failed to connect with the voting public or with the vast majority of local parents. From 2008 onward, the number of seats has been slashed, electoral districts enlarged, and voter participation has dropped with each election. It’s a classic case of what political scientists term the “turned-off electorate” and it breeds growing detachment from elected school district representatives, then a loss of public trust.

Abolishing school district governance without replacing it with a better, more democratic system would be a mistake. That’s what happened four years ago in Nova Scotia when that province’s seven elected Anglophone school boards were dissolved and left to devolve into more highly centralized regional centres for education.

Wiping out elected regional representation is not a solution when it means, in effect, handing over total responsibility to an empowered group of regional potentates with title to match, transforming superintendents into ‘regional directors of education.’ Appointing fifteen regional educational representatives to a Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE) provided political cover. The vast majority of Nova Scotia parents have no idea that PACE even exists and, in most cases, have nowhere to turn when policy concerns surface or local matters cannot be resolved by school administrators.

The current crisis at the Greater Victoria School District (SD 61) Board suggests that education governance in British Columbia is floundering. Allowing a regional school board to suspend two publicly-elected school trustees Diane McNally and Rob Paynter whose only crime was asking tough questions is a sign of deeper problems with respect to providing proper public accountability to parents and local taxpayers. It even sparked a vote of non-confidence from the local branch of the BC teachers’ union. The relative silence emanating from the British Columbia School Trustees Association (BCSTA) speaks volumes. Perhaps elected boards are only there to shield district administration and maintain a façade of local democratic representation.

New Brunswick is a good place to start the process of local democratic renewal. That province needs is a complete break with current form of education governance and it will not come from inside the system, but from best, evidence-based practice in governance outside the provincial sector. That sounds like what Education Minister Dominic Cardy has in mind in the months ahead.

Saving the 68 seats on DECs will only sustain the status quo and do little, by itself, to invigorate local school-level democratic decision-making. The Minister’s got it right in a recent Times & Transcript interview: “We actually need more people doing more work who are democratically elected and accountable across the province.”

That’s music to my ears and my 2020 book, The State of the System, makes the case for building back democracy from the schools up over a period of 3 or 4 years. Starting with the creation of school governing councils entrusted with wider responsibilities for school-level management, a more decentralized model would ensure that far more decisions are made where it really counts in the schools by educators working in genuine partnership with parents and community members, including representatives of local businesses and social service agencies.

The DECs as presently constituted are dying of natural causes. One trenchant critic Donald Gallant nailed it in a recent rather terse CBC News story comment: “Who would ever want to sit on those silly committees where nobody listens to anything you say.” That’s the brutally honest truth, but it does not mean that we should turn the entire system over to regional ‘educrats’ and school consolidators in charge of regional facilities planning.

There has got to be a better way forward to invigorate democratic engagement in local decision-making.  It starts by investing time and resources into developing school-level decision-making capacity, attracting a whole new generation of actively engaged parents and educators, introducing term of service limits, and taking the time to build school-based community councils in support of thriving, sustainable communities.

Why are elected school boards constantly trying to stave off the provincial executioner?  What’s wrong with the existing regional school board model?  Are elected boards salvageable or are we better to phase them out and start again?  In doing so, should we start from the schools up?  Will it be possible, this time, to overcome the resistance of the education establishment to  school-level, community-school -based education governance?

COVID19LearningLoss

The COVID-19 pandemic shock knocked out Canada’s provincial school systems and we are now seeing the residual effects. Speaking recently on TVO Ontario’s The Agenda, Western University education professor Prachi Srivastava  cut through the usual edu-babble: “I’m shocked at the lack of planning, at the lack of forward planning in the face of what is quite a predictable outcome,” referring to the short and long-term consequences of mass school closures.

When Srivastava speaks, education authorities should be listening and heeding her advice. She’s one of the few Canadian education researchers attuned to global education development and co-lead author of the June 2021 Ontario Science Table brief on the impact of educational disruption not only in Ontario but from province-to-province in Canada. Back in July 2021, she and the research team issued a follow-up report confirming the cumulative learning loss and social harms inflicted since March 2020 and recommending that, barring catastrophic circumstances, schools should remain open for in-person learning for the foreseeable future.

A pan-Canadian scan of Canadian K-12 COVID-related education plans conducted by Toronto-based People for Education and released in early February, after two years of disrupted schooling, came up virtually empty.  While all provinces and territories have public health safety strategies for schools, few have anything approaching a vision or plan to manage, assess or respond to learning loss or the psych-social impact of mass school closures and none have allocated sufficient funding to prepare for post-pandemic recovery.

A near total lack of student data is seriously hampering our capacity to assess how the pandemic has affected student learning over the past two years.  “One of the problems we have,” Srivastava told the London Free Press, “is that there is no baseline data.”  That is confirmed, in spades, in the recent People for Education report. Only four of our 10 provinces and territories, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, are engaged (even in the 2021-22 school year) in any form of data collection, and it’s irregular at best.

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As a G7 country, Canada is purportedly one of the seven most highly industrialized and relatively well-resourced liberal democracies on the planet, and it has, relatively speaking, one of the smallest cohorts of children, some 5.1 million, in elementary and secondary school. With all those resources and one of the most extensive educational bureaucracies in the world, it’s fair to ask why our school systems came up short during the pandemic.

Four mass school closings in Ontario have cost K-12 students some 29 weeks of schooling since March 2020, roughly double the average lost time, 14 to 16 weeks, across all advanced industrial societies. While Ontario leads in weeks claimed by school closures, most other provinces are close behind, with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, for example, checking-in at 20 to 22 weeks of disrupted instructional time. In the case of Nova Scotia, it’s compounded by the fact that 4 to 6 additional days have been lost to storm day closures where teachers are not required to provide alternative instruction.

Suspending or curtailing system-wide student assessments has compounded the problem. With Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) testing cancelled during the pandemic, there was no way to assess how that province’s two million students were performing or whether they were recovering. “My assessment,” Srivastava claims, “is that we could have used the EQAO in a different way. We could have used it to monitor what the baseline was…then we could have rerun the EQAO.”

The Ontario pattern was repeated elsewhere as provinces, one-after-another, abandoned large-scale student assessments and suspended high school examinations. Maintaining consistent and credible benchmark assessments would certainly have made logical sense and left us better prepared to plan for the recovery. While some provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia have restored testing in 2021-22, it’s going to be difficult to analyze without consistent baseline data.

School authorities have failed us during the COVID-19 pandemic and it will prove costly for the pandemic generation of children. A child who was in Kindergarten in March 2020, is now in Grade 2 and will be in grade 3 in September 2022, so pandemic closures will have cost them between 10 and 27 weeks of their schooling, Students in Grade 9 when COVID-19 hit will have had their entire high school years disrupted by closures and mostly ineffective online learning experiments.

Repeated pivots to emergency home learning were detrimental to school age children and families, and education was used as a “pandemic control” instrument without sufficient recognition of the academic and social impacts on children and teens. Public policy devolved into complying with public health dictates, and responding – in ad hoc fashion on the fly – to educator and parent concerns, applying band-aid upon band-aid, from social distancing to bubble to HEP filter units, to secure a modicum of consent, several times, to restart in-person school.

Serious research into COVID-19’s impact on student learning is gradually emerging and, given the preoccupations of our education schools, it originates mostly elsewhere.  Studies in the United Kingdom during COVID-19 point to a learning loss of between 2 months and 2 years, depending upon the educational jurisdiction. One of the few Canadian studies, conducted by University of Alberta researcher George Georgiou, found that students in Grades 1 and 2 in Edmonton and Vermillion performed, on average, 8 months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks at the end of the last school year. More recently, a U.S. study, conducted from 2019 to 2022 by Amplify utilizing DIBELs assessments, found that more than I in 3 children from Kindergarten to Grade 3 fell significantly short of their expected reading level without major and systematic interventions.

A more coherent, integrated and responsive pandemic education recovery plan is now a matter of immediate necessity.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the key components of such a plan, repeated articulated by Srivastava, me and others, are hiding in plain sight.  Such a comprehensive plan would consist of three main education recovery initiatives:

  • Revamp the entire K-12 curriculum – recognizing that it’s a massive “catch-up operation” in which parts of the curriculum in each year need to be lengthened, some curriculum moved into the next grade, and other parts missed earlier integrated into the current grade.
  • Boost core competencies and skills in reading and numeracy – close the basic skills gap while introducing pro-social skills throughout the curriculum for all children, focusing on the elementary grades.
  • Implement targeted interventions – focusing on schools with the highest number of disruptions and infection rates, or large numbers of students from marginalized communities or special needs students.

Three years ago, Canadian K-12 education occupied a bubble and the architects of the current school system were fond of routinely referring to Ontario as a “world class system.”  When the pandemic hit, prominent Canadian school promoters saw it as a golden opportunity to “build back better” with a focus on enhancing social and emotional learning.  What a difference a Pandemic makes. It’s now a recovery mission and there’s no room for complacency.

Why did Canadian school systems shut down their student assessment programs during the two-year long pandemic?  What explains the lack of preparedness and the inability to respond effectively in overseeing, monitoring, and reporting on student academic progress and well-being? When can Canadian parents and educators expect to see some strategy and plans for learning recovery in the wake of the pandemic? 

FrenchImmersionClassNB

New Brunswick’s French immersion program, currently serving fewer than half of the province’s Anglophone students, is under review once again.  The latest report, produced by John McLaughlin and Yvette Flinn, in tandem, and released February 2, 2022, proposes that it be replaced by an upgraded core French language program offered to all students. It has, predictably, exposed the language fault line never far below the surface in Canada’s only officially bilingual province.

Judging from the initial reaction, bridging the “two solitudes” through early language immersion in schools is still a dream beyond reach. Ongoing debate over bilingualism, especially in schools, consumes a lot of time and energy, for one good reason – it’s fundamental to the unique regional character of the province. Strangely enough, finding common ground is made doubly difficult by the provincial administrative structure itself, maintaining linguistic separation in the provision of services.

After three policy pivots on different entry points for French Immersion since former Premier Shawn Graham’s 2008 overhaul of the program, a “two-tiered system” continues to adversely affect the majority of Anglophone students. Most New Brunswickers would agree with McLaughlin’s recent pronouncement: “It is time for this exhausting and unconstructive cycle to end.”  Whether dismantling French Immersion is the answer is very much in question.

Watching the debate rear its head again, the searing insights of Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 classic, Two Solitudes, came to mind. While written about Quebec and mostly during the height Second World War conscription crisis, that novel put a finger on the psychological and cultural separation between Anglophone and Francophone which, in some ways, haunts us still.  “Two old races and religions meet here and live their separate legends, side by side,” MacLennan wrote, referring to Anglo Montreal and rural French-speaking countryside villages. “If this sprawling continent has a heart, here it is. Its pulse throbs out along the rivers and railroads; slow, reluctant and rarely simple, a double beat, a self-moved reciprocation.”

Government reports never rise to such poetic elegance, especially in a more straight-forward and less florid provincial culture. That’s a shame because culture and language inspire passion and ingenuity as well as laying bare underlying divisions. Reconciling those linguistic tensions is, after all, what makes both Quebec and New Brunswick unique or, put another way, ‘not provinces like the others.’

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Contemporary New Brunswick, in spite of a succession of policies fostering bilingualism, remains, in the words of the report, “a bilingual province in name only.” Only 33.9 per cent of New Brunswickers considered themselves bilingual, according to the 2016 Canadian Census. While 73.2 per cent of francophones reported that they spoke both languages, that was the case for only 15.7 per cent of anglophones. That’s not a ringing endorsement of provincial core language programs in K-12 schools.

With a little imagination, we can still see fleeting glimpses of Hugh MacLennan’s Protestant Anglo Montreal in the provincial capital of Fredericton and of the French-Canadian village of Saint Marc-des-Erables in Madawaska. Industrializing villages and towns may not spark the resistance found in the classic novel, but it’s not far fetched to spot contemporary examples of fictional characters like Ontario businessman Huntley McQueen and the odd Paul Tallard, at home in both languages, but trying to reconcile the tensions between French Canadian and English identities.

Over the past two years, the Blaine Higgs government’s proposal to change the French Immersion program in the province has sparked robust debate in both languages.  Blunt statements by People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin that French Immersion was a “failed program” were met with stony silence from Education Minister Dominic Cardy on Global News.

Simply touching French Immersion was enough to send its passionate advocates in the local branch of Canadian Parents for French (CPF NB) into panic mode. Introducing pilot programs in more than a dozen school drawing upon “best, evidence-based practice” in providing enhanced core French suggested that under Minister Cardy the ‘fix was in’ on the likely alternative. That explains why Green Party leader David Coon recently provided a stout defense of French Immersion programs.

Coming on the heels of a provincial review of the Official Languages Act, required every 10-years, the McLaughlin-Flinn report dovetails with proposed plans to create a government department dedicated to advancing the two official languages. It did lift the veil on the stubborn “challenges,” including “confusion over what it means to be bilingual,” the net effect of “intergenerational linguistic tensions,” and how better performing students are siphoned away from mainstream Anglophone schools.

Government reports don’t make a dent when it comes to rectifying entrenched problems. Back in January 2020, Minister Cardy flagged them on CTV Atlantic. A large number of New Brunswick Anglophones lacked access to French Immersion and there was a shortage of French language teachers. “We’ve got a problem with geography,” he said, in that “you’re more likely to access French Immersion in the cities than the countryside [and] we’ve got a problem with teaching capacity.” It’s going to take some time to successfully address such obstacles.

Everyone agrees that French Immersion fades as a favoured option in high school, reflected in sharply reduced graduation numbers. Shrinking numbers in Grades 11 and 12 are a problem that needs to be addressed, according to Dorothy White of CPF New Brunswick.

Developing student fluency in two or more languages is possible, as demonstrated in Quebec and many European nations.  There’s a rather draconian element of compulsion in Quebec where French is the official language buttressed by language laws limiting the use of English in the public sector. In the case of Europe, students are more immersed in a multi-language universe where they can easily travel to visit places nearby where different languages are spoken in the streets.

One constructive proposal in the latest report is to embrace the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, to assess and identify students’ levels of proficiency. Establishing six evidence-based levels of language fluency would help, but the greatest advantage may lie in acquiring teaching resources geared to seeing more students master conversational French and far more at level C2, approaching native fluency.

Former Deputy Minister of Education John McLaughlin, the report’s co-author, is right in recommending a gradual approach to advancing French instruction so as the minimize the potential backlash.  “Set the table properly, get people on board and then create a movement that nobody will want to stop” sounds like it was ripped out of a superintendent’s playbook for school change.

Passion and poetry are more likely to inspire such a movement. At the risk of sounding passionate about promoting French in an Anglophone world, might I suggest going back to the original conception of “two solitudes,” coined by Rainer Maria Rilke and popularized in MacLennan’s novel?  “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” Simply put, crossing over and marrying someone from the other side does wonders for bilingualism. Look around and you will see examples of this generational solution.

*Reprinted from The Telegraph-Journal, February 11, 2022.

What can be done to advance bilingualism in Canada’s only officially bilingual province?  Is French Immersion still central to that overarching goal?  What’s standing in the way of graduating more students fluent in French in New Brunswick?  Is it better to improve French Immersion or to greatly enhance core French programs in all Anglophone schools?

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Getting COVID-19 shots into the arms of children has now emerged as a critical piece in the seemingly never-ending struggle to banish the virus from our midst. When it comes to that front in the public health war, one province leads the pack, Newfoundland and Labrador. Three-quarters (74.7 per cent) of that province’s children, ages 5 to 11, have already had their first shot, with Nova Scotia second at 61.4 per cent and the others trailing behind.

Barely one-half (52.9 per cent) of New Brunswick’s kids had been vaccinated when Maclean’s magazine reported on Newfoundland’s success in getting kids vaccinated. While our eastern-most Atlantic neighbour has always been more vaccine friendly, the single biggest reason is the critical role played by school-based immunization clinics. Provincial officials in NL estimate that some 40 per cent of those shots have been administered in schools, a far higher rate than in New Brunswick and other provinces and territories.

Schools have been closed to in-person learning in New Brunswick all of January and are scheduled to reopen January 31. With Omicron surging, closing K-12 schools was deemed critical as a so-called ‘circuit breaker,’ and – in large part – because of the low vaccination rates among young children. It also meant that schools were essentially out-of-bounds for vaccination-on-demand shots in the one place where 98,000 children and teens gather each day.

With schools closed, New Brunswick did manage to push the vaccine shot rate for children up marginally to some 54.5 per cent during the past two weeks of the school shutdown. If getting shots into children’s arms in now the name of the game, the needle is finally moving. Given the urgency of the situation, and the significant time and resources being spent on ‘health-proofing’ school facilities, it’s fair to suggest that NB Health and NB Education might have been better advised to plan and implement a more comprehensive in-school vaccination program. There’s no question that child vaccination rates would have been far higher and staff still unvaccinated been given a convenient opportunity to get fully vaxxed or boosted to further advance mass immunity.

Minister of Education Dominic Cardy is, as is well known, a man of action, especially when it comes to campaigning for vaccine mandates. A month ago, when Omicron first reared its ugly head, his first reaction was instinctive. Gazing forward into 2022, his fertile mind was drawn to, what else? but the prospects for “mandatory vaccinations” for children. Instead of bringing vaccinations to every school, he was fixated on making compliance a condition of attending school.  That makes common sense, of course, if your overarching goal is to address all manner of childhood diseases through school-access vaccine requirements.

Minister Cardy and his Comms officer, Flavio Nienow, produced a helpful briefing note on January 25, 2022 on the province’s education sector immunization approach and record. Students identified as at higher high-risk of exposure and education staff were the priority, starting in late March and early April 2021, focusing on the 4,500 staff in high schools province-wide.

School-based vaccination clinics were run, on a limited basis, from September to December 2021. According to the NB Education and Early Childhood Development Department, they were “private clinics run by pharmacies” in collaboration with the Department. Only 24 such clinics were actually held, a limited reach when one considers that K-12 education is delivered in 294 school sites across the province.

The Omicron surge caught everyone off-guard, so let’s try to be fair.  What is clear, however, is that back in November when shots for the 5 to 11 population were authorized, New Brunswick was slower off the mark and ruled out mass inoculation, on a voluntary basis, through the schools. “The low take-up” in the initial fall 2021 was the reason given by Minister Cardy. Maybe so, but the scale of the Omicron surge and the vulnerability of children should have triggered a reassessment of the fastest, most efficient way of getting first shots into children’s arms.

Minister Cardy and his Department seem to have been laser focused on taking advantage of the January school shutdown to produce a return-to-school safely plan that ticked all the boxes and went one-better than some other provinces. Provincial teachers’ union leadership, vocalized by NBTA co-president Connie Keating, were a major factor in shaping the whole approach. Masks for all teachers, hiring more supply teachers, restoring classroom bubbles, and installing HEPA filters topped the NBTA ask list. Pushing for school vaccine clinics did not figure prominently in those health-protection representations.

When Keating spoke out about teacher concerns over the health and safety of members returning to in-person teaching, Cardy reacted swiftly, on social media and CBC News, defending the Department’s plan, emphasizing the change-of-position on installing portable HEPA filter units. Calming the anxieties of, and reducing the risks to, in-school personnel weighed heavily in the balance and so did limiting the number of supply teachers needed to cover elementary and secondary school classes. Eventually, the Department produced a report favourable to installing portable units and some $3-million materialized to outfit the 60 schools currently without proper air circulation systems. To its credit, the Department also did a more thorough assessment of the relative effectiveness of the competing HEPA filter units.

            The old adage of ‘the carrot and the stick’ applies to the campaign to boost vaccination rates at all ages. Scaring people with horror stories about COVID-19 and its after-effects, including ’long-COVID’ worked in securing much higher vaccination rates than usual for prevention of the seasonal flu.  A minority of the populace, including a relatively small proportion of parents, will likely never accept the need for, or effectiveness, of the shots. It may be a mistake to focus on clamping down with mandates in an effort to stamp out the resistance.

            The Pandemic is full of unexpected twists and turns – and it tests the agility of health and education policy-makers as much as ordinary citizens like us. We have just been taught a lesson by Newfoundlanders and that message even made the news in central Canada. School-based clinics can work if the focus is on expanding the points of vaccine delivery, making it more easily accessible for kids and, incidentally, their parents and families. School-based clinics may soon be coming to your school community. Looks like Ontario will be next, following the pioneering work done in Newfoundland and Labrador.

*Adapted from Education Beat, Telegraph-Journal, January 28, 2022.

Whatever happened to delivering vaccinations to children through the public schools? Why did it fall out-of-favour when the practice was critical in immunization campaigns that stamped out common childhood diseases? Shouldn’t we be providing vaccination access in local communities, closest to where kids and staff spend their weekdays?

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Any hope for a definite end to the protracted COVID-19 Pandemic is gradually disappearing. The latest Omicron surge looks unstoppable in Canada and, in province-after-province, rates of infection and transmission are setting new records. Some solace is provided when we seize upon signs of fewer serious cases requiring lengthy hospitalization and leading to death.

A fundamental psychological shift is underway with profound implications for children, families and schools. “When will the Pandemic end?” is giving way to “How can we learn to live with COVID?” Confronting a rampant Omicron spread, necessity is giving birth to a new line of thinking. Leading global thinktanks were the first to confront “the new normal” and it’s now being embraced by those once thought least likely to change their scripts, Canada’s provincial public health officers.

The shift from big- P “Pandemic” to little-e “endemic” was forecast by health science experts specializing in epidemic diseases and policy wizards commissioned to forecast social trends. A decade ago, medical researcher Sander L Gillman, produced a rather obscure book, Diseases and Diagnoses: the Second Age of Biology (2010), connecting the dots between “Moral Panics and pandemics” and forecasting a global “pandemic killer” potentially worse than the 2009 H1N1 influenza. Four months ago, the American public policy thinktank McKinsey & Company got out front of us by daring to produce a policy research paper with the rather audacious title “How the world can learn to live with COVID-19.”

The Big Shift on COVID-19 has now arrived and is seeping into public discourse. The latest episode of CBC-Radio’s The House (January 8, 2022), hosted by Chris Hall, provided a virtual clinic on the profound re-orientation now underway. The dramatic and uncontainable spread of Omicron in January of 2022 has prompted Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang and a growing group of health experts to change tbeir approach to COVID-19 – and to publicly acknowledge that the populace is going to have to get used to living with the virus. Nowhere is that shift more profound than in our strategy of protecting children and teens in and around K-12 schools.

Nova Scotia’s public health chief, nationally recognized for his ‘tough’ COVID-19 regulations from March 2020 to December 2021, has changed his tune. “We are going to have to…move away [from  eradication], and accept that the virus that causes COVID is going to be around with us,” Dr Strang stated on air. Our new goal, he claimed, should be to “manage” COVID-19 based upon “having good levels immunity from both vaccination and infection…[so] that we no longer have to have these wide restrictive measures and…this huge focus on trying to identify as many cases as possible.”

That’s a seismic shift and Dr. Strang is not alone in changing their whole approach. Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that the goal now is to “slow the spread because it cannot be stopped.”  Dr. Strang’s opposite number in Newfoundland and Labrador Dr Janice Fitzgerald has also come to that conclusion. Health care policy expert Katherine Fierlbeck of Dalhousie University offered a succinct explanation for the change. People eventually “get tired of top-down governance,” she said on CBC’s The House, and to retain public trust requires more transparency, including fuller disclosure of the evidence used in making decisions, its limitations, and the tradeoffs between potential benefits and harms.

Convincing school-age parents and educators in our K-12 schools is proving to be a formidable late-pandemic challenge. Pandemics like COVID-19 tend to evoke and provoke extremes in people, clearly revealed in UBC psychologist Steven Taylor’s October 2019 book, The Psychology of Pandemics. While some people in the broader education community are resilient and cope fairly well with the uncertainties, a significant proportion of others, especially parents of younger school-age children and educators, reflect what Taylor terms the “cave syndrome.” Fearful of COVID-19 spread, they become “excessively anxious” spinning a protective web at home and resistant to sending their kids back to school until absolutely every potential hazard and germ has been removed from that environment.

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Much of that hyper-vigilance is reflected in a new wave of child-protection parent advocacy. Examining the social media traffic produced by one such parent Facebook group, Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, an online community of 22,700 parents and friendly educators, provides plenty of evidence of the mass psychology. That group, coordinated by Stacey Rudderham, and a small group of engaged parents, has led the charge in alerting parents to every potential “exposure site,” identifying all manner of lapses in school-level public health precautions, and signs of potential mass outbreaks.  Public spokespersons for the group  have even challenged the credibility of Dr. Andrew Lynk and his IWK Children’s Hospital team.

The N.S. Facebook group built its membership by creating an early warning system for school-level exposures and attracting hundreds of concerned parents. Over the past 22-months, Rudderham’s group has also supported the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, several times, in pushing for school closures as “circuit breakers.”  Organized pressure group activity, going back to March 2020, helps to explain why Nova Scotia, with comparatively low case counts until recently, has closed schools for a total of 21 weeks, second only to Ontario in North America.

Echoing NSTU president Paul Wozney in early January 2022, the Facebook group “deplored” plans to return to in-person schooling, calling into question the repeated assurances of Dr. Strang and public health officials. That strategy worked, because recently-elected N.S. Premier Tim Houston relented to the public pressure, extending the holiday break, for the second time, and into a third week.  In short, Dr. Strang’s CBC Radio The House comments was actually aimed at changing the channel in his home province.

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Watch for the Big Shift underway in public health policy. When it arrives in your province, you can expect it to mimic the public policy “management” strategy mapped out by global think tanks. You can expect provincial leaders and public health officers to (1) define the new normal; (2) monitor progress through “disease surveillance”; (3) limit illness and death; and (4) slow transmission, responding to identified “hot spots.” 

It will not be easy to convince stressed out parents suffering advanced “COVID-fatigue” that the dreaded COVID is here to stay and we have to learn, somehow, how to cope with the changed landscape, both inside and outside of schools.  It will also take far more than a few media briefings and targeted comments drawing upon the McKinsey & Company playbook on how to “manage” our way from Pandemic to endemic.

*An earlier version appeared in The Hub.com

What are the profound psychological effects of the Pandemic – and does it qualify as a Moral Panic? If the Omicron surge is unstoppable and the virus is present everywhere, are schools (with proper supervision and layers of protection) the safest places for children and teens? Is it a matter of necessity being the source of invention?  Will provincial public health authorities succeed in calming heightened public fears and helping us to adjust to the changed epidemiological conditions?