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Most of us can remember stewing in the incredible heat and humidity of those stuffy, aroma-filled egg-crate elementary school classrooms. Years ago, teachers tried to pretend that the heat was not unbearable and let you sweat your way through periodic heat wave days. Window blinds were lowered, lights were dimmed and it was hard to keep from falling to sleep on your arms glued by perspiration to those wooden desktops.

Primary schoolgirl asleep at desk in classroom

Most teachers finally gave-in, installing rotating fans, and allowing you to bring cups and containers with water. My late mother believed in attending school under any circumstances recommended running cold water over your wrists.  Educators knew that June heat makes learning next-to-impossible on certain days, but no one studied its actual effects on learning, until quite recently.

Heat exposure in schools, it turns out, does adversely affect student learning and school air conditioning does make a difference. That’s the key finding of a May 2020 American study published by four recognized experts in quantitative analysis in the education field.

Utilizing student fixed effects models and a sample of 10 million students in Grades 10 and 11 who retook the PSATs (Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test), the U.S. researchers found that hotter days reduce scores, with extreme heat being particularly damaging to performance.  In short, excessive heat disrupts learning time.

Air conditioning schools can have a positive effect on student learning, the study shows. School-level air conditioning penetration, in effect, offsets the heat’s effects on students. “Without air conditioning, a 1℉ hotter school year reduces the year’s learning by 1 per cent,” the researchers found. Hot school days also tend to have proportionately more adverse effects on minority students, accounting for some 5 per cent of the so-called “racial achievement gap.”

The Pandemic has cost us most of two years of schooling as school systems pivoted to home learning, hybrid models, back and forth, interrupting months of in-person schooling. Health risk reduction strategies are now part of school district facilities planning and maintenance practices. Reopening schools forced education authorities to become more aware of, and responsive to, the critical need to ensure healthy school buildings.

One of the best COVID-19 strategies, produced in June 2020 by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, identified the five critical elements of an effective plan: (1) Healthy Classrooms, (2) Healthy Buildings, (3) Healthy Policies, (4) Healthy Schedules, and (5) Healthy Activities. “Breathing clean air in the school building” was deemed essential to the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff during COVID-19 and in post-pandemic times.

Improving air ventilation was at the centre of the proposed plan of action for Healthy Buildings. School authorities were advised to consider a coordinated and flexible approach tailored to the specific conditions in each school site. Increasing outdoor air ventilation was considered a minimum expectation, and the recommended remedial actions included air quality and filtration assessments, portable air cleaners, filtering of indoor air, and the installation of advanced air quality systems, including central or designated zone air conditioning.

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The impact of students’ and teachers’ physical environments on educational outcomes is understudied and deserves far more attention. Excessive heat best exemplified during heat waves does directly interfere with learning. Disparities in physical environments, such as improper or intermittent air ventilation, also seem to contribute to inequality when it comes to serving disadvantaged or racialized communities.

The Pandemic was a wake-up call for educators alerting us to the critical role played by air flows and aerosols in the transmission of deadly viruses. Growing awareness of climate change and global warming has also heightened our sensitivity to rising temperatures and the incidence of heat waves. Median climate change scenarios predict average U.S, warming at 5 ℉ from 2010 to 2050.

Based upon existing estimates of global warming across Canada, we can project, by 2050, how much more heat-disrupted learning we can expect relative to today. It’s safe to predict that there will be more school days in the high 30s with sweltering Humidex readings. Given those climate change prospects and what COVID taught us, investing in improved school ventilation, including air conditioning, looks more like a sensible, longer-term capital improvement in K-12 education.

Putting up with oppressive heat and making-do with existing air ventilation is becoming less defensible in COVID times.  How can students perform up to their potential in steamy classrooms with little or no air ventilation? What is the impact on student attention and learning as measured in test results? Will the COVID-19 pandemic be the deal-breaker in addressing the chronic and unaddressed problem?

The most recent April 2021 Fraser Institute report on Mathematics performance of students across Canada contained very few surprises. Students from Quebec continue to be at the head of the class. On the benchmark Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) from 2003 to 2018, they scored the highest (532 in 2018), 20 points above the Canadian average, and continued to outpace those of any other province. Steep declines have been registered by students from Alberta (- 38 points), British Columbia (-34 points), and Saskatchewan (- 31 points). Students from two Maritime provinces, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, have steadily declined and now hover around the OECD mean score of 494. 

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Most interesting to analyze is New Brunswick because it exemplifies why Canadian students produce such mediocre results. With PISA scores dropping from 511 (2003) to 491 (2018),  New Brunswick 15-year-old students perform well below the national mean scores on a “steadily negative ” trajectory over the past fifteen years. On the past three PISA tests, 2012 to 2018, their scores have declined by 2.2 per cent, third worst among the provinces. The national Grade 8 PCAP results for 2010 to 2016 while below the national mean do show slight improvement, albeit on assessments keyed to provincial curriculum standards.  What jumps out at you in the report, however, is the row of blanks for provincial math assessments in New Brunswick and the statement “insufficient data to estimate trends.”

Assessing student capabilities in mathematics should, one would think, be a provincial priority when there’s plenty of evidence that students are still struggling in math. The clearest example of this, confirmed in interviews with math tutors over the past two weeks, is that most N.B. students today are so lacking in basic computational skills that they cannot complete secondary school math placement tests without a calculator.

Calculator dependence is now widespread in New Brunswick schools and its most telling impact is in the lagging Mathematics achievement of students.  The use of calculators in North American math classrooms has been common since the 1980s, but top performing nations, such as Singapore, China and Korea, put far more emphasis on integrating mental computation with conceptual understanding before progressing to higher-level math and problem solving. That approach is also reflected in the most successful after-school math tutoring programs such as Kumon Math and the Toronto-based alternative, the Spirit of Math, widely used in Ontario independent schools.

Provincial school officials do not generally react to periodic reports that students are struggling in mathematics, pointing to rising teacher-assigned student grades and healthy graduation rates. Those in the ‘shadow school system’ of private tutoring and the math assessment offices of universities and colleges have no such inhibitions. Most are alarmed at what they see and learn while conducting intake assessments of prospective students. Most perform one or two grades below expected levels and, moving upwards through the grades, wide variations appear in students’ skill levels and competencies.

‘Discovery Math’ is the prevailing teaching approach in the vast majority of N.B. elementary schools and the tutors insist it’s not working for far too many students. “Most students have gaps in their skills,” says Rhonda Connell, manager of Fredericton’s Kumon Math and Reading operation with 28-years of tutoring experience. “The N.B. curriculum is not skills-based, but rather more exploratory of different methods.”

What’s wrong with that approach?  “Students in public schools without basic skills get taught long and complicated operations and the kids get lost,” Connell tells me. “They don’t know their mental math and that’s why high school students simply cannot do the Kumon placement test without a calculator.”

The mathematics deficits grow as students progress from elementary grades into high school. “There’s a widening gap,” says Connell. She finds that students do not know their fractions, cannot do long division or basic subtraction and borrowing operations. The bottom line: “Students don’t have the skills at hand to engage in problem-solving and higher-level math.”

The founder of Mathnasium in Moncton, Jocelyn Chan, saw through the eyes of her son, now 7-years-of age, that mathematics education was sadly lacking. As a CPA with plenty of corporate finance experience, she decided to do something about it by opening the first Mathnasium franchise operation in Atlantic Canada. Since opening in October 2020, it’s grown from 4 or 5 students to 70 enrolments today with a majority of students in Grades 5 and 6 where the math deficits become more pronounced and visible to parents.

The pandemic shutdowns and default to hybrid learning have set students back, particularly in a more teacher-dependent subject like mathematics. “A lot of Moncton area students were already behind to begin with,” Chan says, ‘so the learning loss is more acute.” “Lots of Grade 9s this year are struggling,” she notes, “because of COVID-19 causing them to lose half of their grade 8 year, leaving them unprepared for the next grade.”

Private tutoring after-school programs such as Kumon and Mathnasium both cater to upwardly, mobile, affluent families with the financial resources to afford such programs. Out of 331 Kumon operations in Canada, there’s only one in New Brunswick.  While the Fredericton Kumon centre run by Connell has grown steadily from some 30 to 40 students in 1993 to 141 students today, that’s still a small fraction of the total student population.

Many of the new clients also turn out to be newcomers, recently arrived in the province. Most local parents, according to Connell and Chan, only become concerned when they see their children falling behind or getting lower grades. “People moving here from elsewhere,” Connell notes, “expect more” and “come to Kumon saying that there’s nothing going on in the schools.”

Unaddressed math problems surface again when students proceed on to university and find themselves in popular programs like management, marketing, or economics where some math skills are required to master the core content.  Many turn to mathematics and language remediation programs.

Senior Math instructor C. Hope Alderson is on the front-lines as coordinator of the UNB- SJ Flora Beckett Mathematics and Science Help Centre. As a mathematics tutor, she spends most of her time building the skills and confidence of students struggling in their university courses. Choosing her words carefully, Dr. Hope Alderson confirms what private after-school tutors say about today’s students. “Student have quite an attachment to the calculator,” is how she puts it. “There’s certainly less emphasis on mental computations in today’s schools. They grab the calculator to do simple calculations.”

The pandemic is not helping the situation. Faced with stay-at-home orders, students and families were left with online remedial programs or strictly-limited in-person, socially-distanced tutoring. Enrollment in Kumon Fredericton peaked in 2019, just before the school shutdown.  Since then, home learning and family stresses have kept families away from Kumon.  “Family stresses ran high,” says Connell, “and it had an effect on students’ abilities to focus on their math.” Separation from their social group was especially hard on teenage students.

Mastery of basic math skills is being sadly neglected in our K-12 schools. Conceptual understanding should not be emphasized to the virtual exclusion of mental computation skills. Getting a calculator to do the mathematics for you contributed to the entrenched problem.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Telegraph-Journal, provincial edition, In New Brunswick.

Why are Canadian students losing ground in Mathematics on the benchmark PISA tests administered every three years?  What can we learn from a case study looking at the state of math competencies in New Brunswick? Is it a combination of factors?  If so, what needs to be done to address the underperformance of our students on international assessments?  

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Fifteen months into the pandemic, alarm bells are ringing from province-to-province right across Canada about the state of student learning, achievement and well-being. Active parents, learning experts, and pediatricians report that “the kids are not alright.” While some provinces are faring worse than others, real concerns are being registered about the “snowball effect” of learning losses in literacy, skill development lags, and the truncated preparation of graduating students. These are all tell-tale signs of a school system turned upside-down.

Shutting schools forces students, teachers and parents to make abrupt ‘pivots’ to hastily imposed online learning or various mutations of hybrid learning, combining some in-person teaching with e-learning activities. What’s most peculiar about ‘Home Learning 2.0’ is that schooling is now in a strange kind of limbo without much in the way of public oversight or accountability, particularly from parents weathering the Third Wave of COVID-19 school disruptions.

Conventional school-home boundaries, both physical and socially constructed, have blurred as home learning becomes more common.  Teacher-student-family relations now exemplify what American human relations expert Pauline Boss termed “family boundary ambiguity.” Under stressful conditions, “schooling has been integrated into the household” where parents are expected to establish regular routines and take on the instructor role. In the case of teachers, it’s meant adapting to radically different, mostly unfamiliar tech-enabled teaching and re-asserting their positional authority on a different terrain. Venturing outside of those comfort zones has also been fraught with dilemmas, tensions, and unexpected discoveries. 

Most of the Canadian public, including a majority of parents, have been left in the dark about the impact of pandemic learning loss, particularly on the development of Canada’s youngest learners. One of the few Canadian literacy impact studies, conducted by University of Alberta researcher George Georgiou is very alarming. Reading deficits among primary-aged students, since March 2020, in grades 1 to 3 amount to about eight to 12 months below their grade levels.

Since the pandemic descended upon us, more and more students are disengaging from school. Spending hours a day online and repeated scheduling changes, particularly in Greater Toronto Area ‘hot spot’ school districts, have contributed to worsening student absenteeism rates. Thousands of students in school districts as far north as Thunder Bay have missed 16 or more days, the benchmark of chronic absenteeism. Record numbers of students are missing attendance checks or not reporting-in at all under the home learning regime.

One year after the Spring 2020 system-wide shutdowns its hard to fathom why school administration is still tying to sort out how to measure student attendance and participation. Without clear, definitive expectations, students can sign-in every day, but keep their camera and microphone off so there’s no way of monitoring their level of engagement.

American research into student participation rates has already flagged the growing incidence of students working in the retail sector while still on the school enrolment books.  Daily behaviour routines are becoming ingrained and do not include logging into or attending classes. Some researchers like Wilfrid Laurier education professor Kelly Gallagher-Mackay express the fear that a whole cohort of students mat well “deeply disengage” to the point that it will prove impossible to bring them back.

            Serious research into the impact of school closures on parents and families does exist, but its limited here in Canada.  One incredibly significant December 2020 study, conducted by Bonnie Stelmach for the Alberta Schools Councils’ Association, unearthed unreported problems associated with the repeated “pivots” to home learning and the incredible burden it shifts to parents. Based upon a survey of 1,067 parents and 566 teachers, plus twenty in-depth interviews, the study demonstrated the profound impact, assessed in terms of “pulse points” in parent-teacher relations.

            Stelmach’s findings identify underlying issues that need further scrutiny and attention, particularly in Ontario and the Maritimes. Widespread confusion was evident in the interpretation of “Ministry directives” when it came to expected time on task (hours per week), real-time online instruction, and student outcomes. Suspending student assessment grading from March to June 2020 was panned by parents, teachers and students. It removed any incentive, especially in high schools, to work through to the end of the year.

Home learning was, and is, an eye-opening experience for parents and teachers.  While more parents clearly appreciate today’s teaching challenges, they are also far more aware of deficiencies in current elementary curriculum, the poor integration of e-learning platforms, the unevenness of teaching, and irregularities in expectations, even from class-to-class in their own local schools.

Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), has just announced what, a short year ago, might have been unthinkable. Following a similar move by Ottawa education authorities, the TDSB will offer a two-track system again in 2021-2022, allowing parents to choose between in-person and virtual learning for their children. School choice has arrived through the back door.

Lifting the hood on ‘Learning at Home’ and its impact on students is long overdue.  Now that Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces are weeks into home learning again, it’s time to study the prevalence of learning loss, the socio-psychological impacts, and the burdens being borne by the parents of school-age children.

Fifteen months into the pandemic, some fundamental questions need to be asked about what’s happening on a larger scale. Is “Topsy-Turvey Education” the beginning of an epochal social transformation or the end of an era defined by binary and contradictory debates? Is home learning/e-learning here to stay as a permanent feature of schooling?  Will K-12 education ever be the same again?

 

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The seemingly unending battle between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education thrives on tired old stereotypes, caricatures, and cartoonish images. ‘Old’ versus ‘new,’ ‘knowledge-rich or ‘well-being’ informed, ‘teacher-centred’ versus ‘student-centred,’ ‘rigorous’ or ‘flabby’? Veterans of the Edu-Wars liken it to a “Punch and Judy Show.” As British education guru, Sir Michael Barber once said: “The road to educational hell is paved with false dichotomies.”

So, when a new book comes along, every so often, promising to bridge the chasm or transcend the battle, it is welcomed by those in the educational trenches or watching the ‘sham battle’ from a safe distance.  The latest such offering, Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching (April 2021), promises to put an end to the seemingly interminable conflict, but utterly fails to do so. Instead, he serves up a “straw-person” in the form of Direct Instruction (DI) and Knowledge-Rich (KR) curriculum for the singular purpose of shooting it down. That’s most disappointing because Professor Claxton purports to be a conciliator and a proponent of marrying knowledge and skills.

Claxton’s The Future of Learning sets the right tone at the beginning. Renowned student assessment researcher Dylan Wiliam raises our hopes with his trademark balanced and judicious forward and Australian education giant John Hattie provides a ringing cover-jacket endorsement. It promises to make you think, re-examine your assumptions, and consider changing your mind. Most of the initial section of the book covers the competing theories, then it devolves into a very public flogging of the apparent infidels at the gates, identified and labeled as the “DI-KR lobby-bubble.” 

Highly respected educators such as Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest, classified as members of the “DIKR” dissidents, are rightly perturbed by a book pretending to be conciliatory, while casting out education researchers, mostly based in schools, who have the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the education professorate. Working directly with teachers in schools across the U.K., Sherrington disputes Claxton’s assertions. “The ideas embedded in a knowledge-rich curriculum and the use of instructional teaching,” he wrote,” make a massive difference to teachers and children—especially when they are grappling with challenging concepts.” Dismissing DI and KR research out-of-hand, according to Sherrington, does not show an openness to learning from or building upon the latest cognitive science, or a “consensus-building style” but rather a “melodramatic take-down approach.”

The growing acceptance of the Long-Term Memory/Working Memory (LT/WM) model advanced by John Sweller, Paul A. Kirschner, and UK teacher-author Carl Hendrick, clearly gets under Claxton’s skin. He chooses to grossly oversimplify the concept and misinterpret the explanatory schematic as if it depicted “a physical space that fills up” and “the bottleneck effect” as something afflicting each and every student.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) should not be so easily dismissed because it addresses one of the biggest inhibitors to student learning. Throwing complex problems at children without the requisite prior knowledge has long been identified as a problem and we now know so much more about “how learning happens” in the minds of students and teachers. Schematics like the LT/WM model are extremely helpful as easy to understand explanatory tools for us. We need to know how much information/knowledge children can handle and what’s their capacity to handle complex abstract things. Knowing this is essential to your teaching/instruction and a key to your effectiveness in the classroom.

Claxton is exceedingly careful in evaluating the cognitive research and writing of one particular academic associated with the so-called “DIKR” camp.  The author and his entourage are unprepared to challenge Daniel T. Willingham. Now that his work is widely recognized and respected in the United Kingdom, as it is in the United States, Claxton has given it a “closer reading” and sees its subtleties. Professor Willingham’s classic work, Why Students Don’t Like School? (2010/2021) and his corpus of cognitive research make him unassailable, even by authors out to discredit those sharing similar views in academe and the classroom.

The popularity of Tom Sherrington’s presentations on “Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction” and the accompanying researchED instructional guide must be wreaking havoc out there with beginning teachers as well as regular practitioners in the schools.  It’s a refreshing change to see a teacher resource spreading like wildfire without the imprimatur of the education schools. Speaking in a teacher’s voice it captures well what real teaching in real classrooms involves – effective questioning, modelling, scaffolding, and independent practice. In other words, it’s not entirely about facilitating programmed activities, facilitating play spaces, and letting kids figure things out in minimally-guided classrooms. 

 Regular working teachers do tire of the sham battle and Claxton’s book will only perpetuate it by denigrating those who challenge the prevailing education school orthodoxy. His recent Book Launch interview with Kath Murdoch made that clear to everyone. A wider range of voices, mostly research-informed, school-based educators, have forced their way into the vital global conversation about improving the quality and effectiveness of teaching. While Claxton applies labels to supposed factions, he seems unwilling to acknowledge that what caused the most recent disruption was a remarkably spontaneous teacher-research movement. It’s clear that the author has yet to grasp the catalytic effect of researchED on research-awakened teachers everywhere.

Leading advocates of Instructional Teaching and a Knowledge-Rich curriculum will not be disbursed or denied because the ideas they have seeded are already influencing teaching and learning in schools. Highly original works like Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c, Greg Ashman’s The Truth About Teaching, and Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick’s How Learning Happens, have filled a vacuum created when Claxton and his education school colleagues became absorbed in promoting school change theories and essentially abandoned the field. Ideas that expose the prevalence of “Zombie Ideas in Education” are threatening to the status quo. That is essentially what Claxton’s book seeks to sustain. The genie is out of the bottle and rank and file teachers are unlikely to return to the cocoon.

Why does Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching completely miss the mark?  For a book purporting to chart a middle course, why is it so dismissive of those holding divergent views on the science of learning?  To what extent does it reveal the extent of the educational divide between education school academics and teacher- practitioners? Simply put, is it possible for a mature leopard to change its spots?  

The abrupt departure of an Ontario Director of Education in early April 2021 was a shocker.  That newly-appointed chief superintendent, Robert Hofstatter, lasted only five weeks on the job and may well be the shortest tenure on record. He was also the first ‘top dog’ in the Ontario regional school board system to be hired after the July 2021 adoption of changes in the requirements to hold such executive positions in K-12 education. The firestorm of resistance at the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB) brought him down.

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Chief Financial Officer Carlene Jackson

What happened? On February 1, the YCDSB announced the appointment of a “new tech savvy director of education.” The incoming director, then the program head of computer science and engineering robotics at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, assumed office at the YCDSB Aurora Education Centre, effective March 1. While he was a member of the Ontario College of Teachers, what drew attention was his 20 years of experience in business, including time as vice-president, global information security operation systems at Scotiabank. On April 7, five weeks after arriving, educators and parents were shocked to receive a system-wide message that he was gone.

Ontario is confronting a massive turnover in its top education ranks and an identified shortage of top candidates prepared to take on the contemporary challenges of COVID-19 era district leadership. In June of 2021, fourteen of the 72 provincial boards were attempting to fill vacancies at the chief superintendent level.  Out of the sitting Directors of Education, fewer than half were women and only 2 or 3 were people of colour. Education Minister Stephen Leece supported a change in the regulations to “diversify the hiring pool” so that boards could seek candidates with wider skills. In the midst of a Pandemic, considerable expertise in technology might qualify as a mission-critical consideration.

Ontario’s teacher unions and their allies were dead-set against broadening the qualifications, fearing that it would open the door to the appointment of Directors without teaching qualifications and experience.  A leading public education funding lobby group, Toronto-based People for Education, sided with the critics, claiming that it would “make Ontario an anomaly across the country.”  An online petition opposing the new regulations attracted 30,000 signatures in its first week and claimed that it was a “substantial change” introduced with “no consultation with experts,” including CODE, the Council of Directors of Education, representing the 72 top ranking educators in the system.  

Teacher union advocates were adamant that Directors of Education should be certified teachers and former members of the unions. A tweet from ETFO president Sam Hammond made their position crystal clear: “The Toronto fire chief is a firefighter. The Police Chief is a police officer. The President & CEO of Sick Kids is a doctor, and the Director of Education should be a teacher.”  Some alleged that it was an attempt to privatize public education. Another rationale then surfaced: “Lack of education experience means that directors will not understand the anti-racist and anti-oppressive considerations necessary to align resources and supports across the organization to support marginalized populations.”

Lost in the furious reaction was the fact that the then interim Director of Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Carlene Jackson, was a Chief Financial Officer (TCDSB), trained as a chartered accountant with a master’s degree in business administration. Neighbouring Peel Region had also employed an interim Director who was not a teacher, with provincial approval, and barely a ripple of opposition. That suggests other factors must have come into play in the York Catholic District School Board situation.

Internal candidates are rarely happy when school boards go external and educators leapfrog over them into the CEO’s office. We now know that Hofstatter was toppled, in part, by an internal revolt within the top administrative ranks. The local media, led by the Aurora-Newmarket online papers, revealed what actually went on behind the scenes. Senior administration at the Board Office started retiring in protest, including the board’s Chief Financial Officer. Some thought they were more qualified for the job, others murmured quietly to teachers about “a white guy” being the first example of greater diversity.

Few outside the higher echelons of K-12 education know much about how the system of school leadership succession actually works. Supervisory papers are the entry passport and the system is explicitly hierarchical as you move up the ladder step-by-step from principal to assistant district superintendent to central office superintendent to the pinnacle, Director of Education. The term “superintendent” is a relic of the “command-and-control” school of leadership. Someone, anyone, from the outside faces a long odds in that kind of organizational culture.

Greater diversity in that applicant pool would certainly be welcome, especially by regular teachers, active parents, and local employers. Former TDSB trustee Howard Goodman was correct when he advocating opening it up to outstanding educators without SO papers, including Deputy Ministers of Education, Faculty of Education deans, and community college presidents. The reality is that CODE operates like a small, exclusive club of 72 individuals, all drawn from the same milieu with remarkably homogeneous views and experiences.

What can be done to meet the educational leadership challenge going forward?  What harm would it do to break the mold – and introduce new blood representing different life experiences?  What would diversity in the ranks of chief superintendents look like?  How can we ensure that what happened in York Region Catholic School Board does not send out a chill – and deter outstanding and capable future leaders from coming forward?

Dots can be hard to connect, especially when it comes to addressing the continuing challenge of teen mental health. The state of services in New Brunswick is replicated right across Canada, especially outside our major cities. Ten years ago, some 1,200 parents and ordinary citizens launched a New Brunswick movement to create a Centre for Excellence for children and youth with complex needs. In the wake of the tragic March 2021 death of 13-year-old Lexi Daken of Fredericton, it’s fair to ask why, since then, so little has changed for teens in crisis.

The images of that day stay with you. Mobilized by Fredericton parent Maureen Bilerman, hundreds of Dots for Youth advocates descended upon downtown Fredericton to form a human chain, connecting the dots, fingertip-to-fingertip, from the Victoria Health Centre to the Provincial Legislature. That demonstration was sparked by an equally disturbing personal story, but it drew powerful inspiration from a truly ground-breaking report, Connecting the Dots, produced in February 2008 by then Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard.

What happened over the past decade is a cautionary tale packing some profound lessons. Shocking and disturbing incidents stir outrage, visionary plans for systemic change appear, the momentum dies down, competing regional interests’ surface, and it all comes unraveled en route to effective implementation.

“Sadly, not much has really changed, “says Bernard Richard, looking back over the past ten to twelve years.  “We are still a long way from achieving the goals and implementing the recommendations set out in Connecting the Dots. Despite repeated commitments, revolving door governments, not much has transpired in filling the holes in our community-based network of support for teens in crisis.”

Richard’s report proposed systemic reform, far ahead of its time.  Breaking with the conventional social service model, he singlehandedly put “integrated service delivery” on the child and youth services agenda. Back then, it was considered revolutionary to recommend reengineering the system to focus on student needs rather than the priorities of competing government departments.

Seeing that children and youth at-risk were falling through the cracks, Richard proposed integrating services and focusing psych-social- medical resources. “The one child, one file” concept made perfect sense, but takes years to put in place in a siloed system. “Everyone should have access to the same case file, and no one should have to tell their story over and over again,” he insists. “No one would be missed if there was true integrated support and one case manager per file.” 

Successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, have bungled the most important file – the proposed Centre for Excellence, one critically-important project which had the potential to turn the situation around in child and teen mental health services. From 2011 to 2015, a province-wide network for service excellence gained momentum and a consensus formed around locating the hub in Moncton or Fredericton, closest the hospitals with youth psychiatric services.

The May 2015 provincial decision, since rescinded, to build a Centre for Youth Services in Campbellton, essentially ignored the demographics of teen mental health case-loads and ran counter to the vast majority of the community feedback. 

Long-time advocates like Dots.NB founder Maureen Bilerman were distraught over the decision and its ramifications. “It’s a sad day for families and youth in crisis,” she said in a series of media interviews. “Shock, disbelief and disappointment” were the words she used to describe her reaction. “Most of the youth-at-risk are from the urban centres of Saint John, Moncton, or Fredericton, and it makes no sense, so it must be a political decision.” 

Political advocacy for teen mental health reform may not have reshaped the system, but it has continued to raise awareness and generate plenty of activity. When Bilerman chose to step back, after a decade of pressing for change, her Dots NB organization merged with the longer-established Partners for Youth Alliance, also based in the provincial capital.

Youth in Action mental health activities peaked in the 2018-19 school year, just prior to the pandemic. Some 74,400 students were exposed to mental health activities, held province-wide for two days, dubbed “Ring a Bell” and “Bell Let’s Talk.” Specific programs were delivered in 7 high schools, and some 200 students participated in one-time mental health presentations.

Most students surveyed gave the high school mental health sessions an “Apple” rating, indicating that they found them to be positive experiences. Raising awareness is beneficial, but reaching the students most in need of help remained as elusive as ever. 

The Pandemic dealt a significant blow to such school initiatives. School closures in March of 2020 interrupted communications and the Partners for Youth group reportedly experienced “radio silence” from youth and educators in the partnered schools. Students and teachers were, according to the agency, “overwhelmed” and “treading to keep their heads above water.”

School shutdowns adversely affected those who needed guidance, counselling, and supports the most. The Partners for Youth 2019-20 annual report put it rather bluntly: “Many students who had difficulties with Mental Wellness ahead of school closures had fallen off the school’s radar completely.”  That has the makings of a youth social service crisis. 

The Fredericton agency’s Executive Director John Sharpe has seen it all, over thirty years working with youth-at-risk. Many investigations and reviews have echoed the findings of a 2009 report by Justice Michael McKee, all painting a similar picture of a system that’s “overwhelmed, understaffed and inadequate for the care of youth.”

“We don’t want to rebuild the system,” Sharpe recently commented. “We want a new system… we want a transformed system. What that means is we have youth, family and community at the centre.” Waiting for champions has turned this reform drive into an exhausting decathlon. 

The road to youth mental health reform is paved with good intentions, but initiatives either run out of high-test gas, are diverted into cul-de-sacs, or get co-opted by research groups chasing government grants. Far too many reform initiatives end up being ‘studied to death’ or kicked down the road through the commissioning of yet another government report.

What’s really standing in the way of the needed changes? “The outrage is now at an all-time high,” according to Dots for Youth founder Bilerman. “What we lack,” she believes, “is the capacity for transformational change management. Models exist and we could pull it off here in New Brunswick.”  Let’s hope the ‘Powers That Be’ are listening.

What’s the situation in your province, district or local community?  To what extent are the service gaps visible in New Brunswick present in your community? What does it take to “connect the dots” and establish a full continuum of support services from childhood to adolescence and on into adulthood?

 

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A draft Ministry of Education document, leaked to the Toronto Globe and Mail on March 24, 2021, has, once again, stirred the pot in the volatile Ontario education debate over expanding online learning courses. After a year of school shutdowns and off-and-on online learning, the document revealed that Education Minister Stephen Lecce was considering legislation to make “remote learning” a “permanent part” of the K-12 public system.

News that online learning was here to stay was hardly earth-shaking, but it aroused the usual fears of a ‘hidden agenda’ at Ontario’s Queen’s Park. Was it a way of promoting and advancing “parent choice” or the thin edge of the wedge leading to “privatization’ of public education?  Whatever the motivation, the online learning “boogeyman” was back, a year after the first round of controversy, cut-short by COVID-19 and the abrupt transition to emergency home learning.

Minister Lecce seized the high ground in confirming that online learning would continue in post pandemic times. Keeping schools open for in-person schooling would remain the priority, but plans were afoot to ensure that, in September 2021, parents would be given the opportunity to enroll their children in “full-time synchronous remote learning.” In post-pandemic education, online learning would continue to be utilized to ensure “continuity of learning,” to “mitigate learning loss,” and to provide students with access to a wider range of courses.

Ontario’s teacher union leaders reacted as expected, slamming the move, and especially the absence of any prior consultation with frontline educators. “The move to virtual learning was never intended to be permanent: it was a temporary measure intended to deliver emergency instruction during a global health crisis,” claimed Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The proposed plan would, he charged, “ negatively affect students, increase inequalities, lower standards…and put us one step closer to the privatization of public education.” Ontario Secondary School Federation president Harvey Bischof was more measured in his criticism, but asked to see evidence that online learning worked to the benefit of students.

The online genie is out of the bottle and will not likely ever be contained or rationed as a supplement to regular programs again. In the case of Ontario, some 400,000 of the province’s 2 million students or 20 per cent have experienced online learning during the 2020-21 school year. While regular in-person learning is far superior for most students, there’s a good argument to be made for expanding course offerings online.

Integrating online courses into the regular program makes good sense, knowing what we now do about the potential for mass disruptions affecting in-class learning time. The final revenge of COVID-19 may strike again, and having an implementable e-learning plan will be part of all future strategic planning in public health and K-12 education. With the capacity to offer comparable virtual learning, for short periods, it’s hard to justify repeated snow day school closures or shutting down operations for a whole range of calamities, including hurricanes, floods, windstorms, boiler meltdowns, or seasonal flu epidemics.

What the Ontario government was proposing back in 2018-19 looks quite different in the light of the COVID-19 educational disruption. The initial Doug Ford government plan to require high school students to complete four online courses from Grades 9 to 12 provoked a firestorm of opposition. It was eventually scaled-back to 2 courses required for graduation. Three courses suggested as online offering possibilities were good ones, Grade 10 career choices, Grade 11 biology, and Grade 12 data management.

What a difference a year makes in K-12 education. Integrating online learning courses into the regular high school program looked radical, scary and disruptive in February of 2020, on the eve of the pandemic. Ontario’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board, not only publicly condemned Minister Lecce in February 2020 for proposing required online courses, but commissioned a teacher- parent – student survey clearly aimed at torpedoing such a plan. Without any real experience in online learning, 81 per cent of parents and 97 per cent of secondary school teachers opposed what were labelled “mandatory e-learning courses.”

What have we learned since the pandemic turned education upside down? Keeping children in school should be the highest priority because its far superior to online substitutes and even compared to the most engaging live stream lessons and videos. The core mission of schools is to provide academic learning, but today’s education includes a far wider range of learning supports and mission-critical psycho-social services. Missing in-person schooling for weeks on end deprives students and families of important lifelines and aggravates socio-economic inequities.

Integrating virtual learning into K-12 education has become the new post-pandemic education imperative. “Continuity of learning” is now more than an aspirational educational catch-phrase when we have the capacity to shift, much more comfortably, from in-person to mixed hybrid or full-time virtual learning. Completing full courses online, much like regularly logging onto Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex platform-supported programs, will become more commonplace and, in time, become a normal expectation for students, teachers and parents everywhere. We have seen the educational future and it includes online learning.

Why does expanding online learning still spark fierce resistance in Canadian school systems? How well did school systems do in transitioning to alternative modes of delivery, specifically hybrid learning and full-time online learning? To what extent was Pandemic Education emergency home learning a fair test of the potential for effective e-teaching?  Is it possible to turn back the clock after absorbing the lessons of the pandemic?

 

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Dots can be hard to connect, especially when it comes to addressing teen mental health in New Brunswick. Ten years ago, some 1,200 parents and ordinary citizens launched a movement to create a Centre for Excellence for children and youth with complex needs. In the wake of the tragic death of 13-year-old Lexi Daken, it’s fair to ask why, since then, so little has changed for teens in crisis.
The images of that day stay with you. Mobilized by Fredericton parent Maureen Bilerman, hundreds of Dots for Youth advocates descended upon downtown Fredericton to form a human chain, connecting the dots, fingertip-to-fingertip, from the Victoria Health Centre to the Provincial Legislature. That demonstration was sparked by an equally disturbing personal story, but it drew powerful inspiration from a truly ground-breaking report, Connecting the Dots, produced in February 2008 by then Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard.
What happened over the past decade is a cautionary tale packing some profound lessons. Shocking and disturbing incidents stir outrage, visionary plans for systemic change appear, the momentum dies down, competing regional interests’ surface, and it all comes unraveled en route to effective implementation.
“Sadly, not much has really changed, “says Bernard Richard, looking back over the past ten to twelve years. “We are still a long way from achieving the goals and implementing the recommendations set out in Connecting the Dots. Despite repeated commitments, revolving door governments, not much has transpired in filling the holes in our community-based network of support for teens in crisis.”
Richard’s report proposed systemic reform, far ahead of its time. Breaking with the conventional social service model, he singlehandedly put “integrated service delivery” on the child and youth services agenda. Back then, it was considered revolutionary to recommend reengineering the system to focus on student needs rather than the priorities of competing government departments.
Seeing that children and youth at-risk were falling through the cracks, Richard proposed integrating services and focusing psych-social- medical resources. “The one child, one file” concept made perfect sense, but takes years to put in place in a siloed system. “Everyone should have access to the same case file, and no one should have to tell their story over and over again,” he insists. “No one would be missed if there was true integrated support and one case manager per file.”

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Successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, have bungled the most important file – the proposed Centre for Excellence, one critically-important project which had the potential to turn the situation around in child and teen mental health services. From 2011 to 2015, a province-wide network for service excellence gained momentum and a consensus formed around locating the hub in Moncton or Fredericton, closest the hospitals with youth psychiatric services.
The May 2015 provincial decision, since rescinded, to build a Centre for Youth Services in Campbellton, essentially ignored the demographics of teen mental health case-loads and ran counter to the vast majority of the community feedback.
Long-time advocates like Dots.NB founder Maureen Bilerman were distraught over the decision and its ramifications. “It’s a sad day for families and youth in crisis,” she said in a series of media interviews. “Shock, disbelief and disappointment” were the words she used to describe her reaction. “Most of the youth-at-risk are from the urban centres of Saint John, Moncton, or Fredericton, and it makes no sense, so it must be a political decision.”
Political advocacy for teen mental health reform may not have reshaped the system, but it has continued to raise awareness and generate plenty of activity. When Bilerman chose to step back, after a decade of pressing for change, her Dots NB organization merged with the longer-established Partners for Youth Alliance, also based in the provincial capital.
Youth in Action mental health activities peaked in the 2018-19 school year, just prior to the pandemic. Some 74,400 students were exposed to mental health activities, held province-wide for two days, dubbed “Ring a Bell” and “Bell Let’s Talk.” Specific programs were delivered in 7 high schools, and some 200 students participated in one-time mental health presentations.
Most students surveyed gave the high school mental health sessions an “Apple” rating, indicating that they found them to be positive experiences. Raising awareness is beneficial, but reaching the students most in need of help remained as elusive as ever.
The Pandemic dealt a significant blow to such school initiatives. School closures in March of 2020 interrupted communications and the Partners for Youth group reportedly experienced “radio silence” from youth and educators in the partnered schools. Students and teachers were, according to the agency, “overwhelmed” and “treading to keep their heads above water.”
School shutdowns adversely affected those who needed guidance, counselling, and supports the most. The Partners for Youth 2019-20 annual report put it rather bluntly: “Many students who had difficulties with Mental Wellness ahead of school closures had fallen off the school’s radar completely.” That has the makings of a youth social service crisis.
The Fredericton agency’s Executive Director John Sharpe has seen it all, over thirty years working with youth-at-risk. Many investigations and reviews have echoed the findings of a 2009 report by Justice Michael McKee, all painting a similar picture of a system that’s “overwhelmed, understaffed and inadequate for the care of youth.”
“We don’t want to rebuild the system,” Sharpe recently commented. “We want a new system… we want a transformed system. What that means is we have youth, family and community at the centre.” Waiting for champions has turned this reform drive into an exhausting decathlon.
The road to youth mental health reform is paved with good intentions, but initiatives either run out of high-test gas, are diverted into cul-de-sacs, or get co-opted by research groups chasing government grants. Far too many reform initiatives end up being ‘studied to death’ or kicked down the road through the commissioning of yet another government report.
What’s really standing in the way of the needed changes? “The outrage is now at an all-time high,” according to Dots for Youth founder Bilerman. “What we lack,” she believes, “is the capacity for transformational change management. Models exist and we could pull it off here in New Brunswick.” Let’s hope the ‘Powers That Be’ are listening.

*Reprinted from the Telegraph-Journal (Provincial), 12 March 2021.

Why does it take a teen mental health tragedy to draw attention to the serious gap in services? What is standing in the way of meaningful action and progress? How typical is New Brunswick of the situation elsewhere?

The COVID-19 pandemic shocks have exposed the fragility of the modern, centralized, top-down bureaucratic education state, identified and analyzed in my 2020 book, The State of the System. A year into the pandemic, the massive disruption has also revealed the limitations of system-bound school change theories (conceived as hybrid “pedagogical and political projects”) ill-equipped to address the immediate crisis in K-12 education.

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Education visionaries, school change theorists, and their academic allies were quick to offer up familiar ideas dipped in “COVID-19” and accompanied by a beguiling ‘build back better” rhapsody. They saw it as a golden opportunity to dream and to finally realize their long-thwarted plans for systemic transformation. The post-pandemic future, in their imagined world, will be a clash of two mutually-exclusive visions: social equality and student well-being or austerity and academic standards – good versus bad. This is, as you will begin to see, a false dichotomy and a misreading of our current educational predicament.

Canadian education consultant Michael Fullan provides the clearest expression to this rather grandiose aspirational vision. Whole system success in a post-pandemic educational universe will come to those who embrace “deep learning” and adopt the right ‘drivers’ of reform. Embracing the ‘human paradigm’ means pursuing ‘well-being and learning,’ ‘social intelligence,’ ‘equality investments,’ and ‘systemness.’ It also means forsaking the wrong drivers of the ‘bloodless paradigm,’ exemplified by ‘academics obsession,’ ‘machine intelligence,’ ‘austerity,’ and ‘fragmentation.’

Global competencies, according to Fullan and his allies, are the wave of the future. His particular formulation, the “Six Cs” are presented as the path to “deep learning:” Character, Citizenship, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. It’s a new variation on “21st century skills” with character and citizenship grafted onto the original conception and now touted as ‘foundational skills’ seen as critical to making a difference in the world.

This whole conception is, upon closer scrutiny, built upon a house of cards, sustained by an extended argument delivered mostly from a position of authority and without reference to the latest research on how learning happens. So-called “21st century skills” have been around for some thirty years, and, in spite of its higher echelon champions, the formulation has failed to gain traction anywhere, except perhaps in British Columbia and a few American states such as Maine and North Carolina. Furthermore, the “Six C’s” have proven difficult to measure, so much so that even its advocates concede its better to focus on the more easily measured content of academic and subject-specific knowledge, particularly in reading and mathematics.

Critical thinking remains the holy grail of K-12 education, but it’s hard to envision without a grounding in domain specific knowledge. Equipping students with the content knowledge to think critically about a full range of important issues does not exemplify an ‘academic obsession’ but rather a commitment to seeking deeper understanding. Nor are student well-being and academic success necessarily in

Educators looking for a more effective “catch-up” strategy would be well advised to look elsewhere for two vitally-important reasons: (1) the mistaken assumption that an academic focus and student well-being are somehow incompatible; and (2) the gross underestimation of the realities of the “COVID Slide’ and learning loss compromising the future success of today’s pandemic generation of students.

A far better point of departure is provided in the World Bank’s 2020 report, COVID-19 Pandemic Shocks to Education, surveying the collateral damage affecting school systems around the world. The immediate impacts were easier to spot, such as the economic and social costs, greater inequalities in access, and school-level health and safety concerns. Less so is the longer-term impact of “learning loss” and its worst-case mutation, “learning poverty” marked by the inability to read and understand a simple text by 10 years-of-age.

Shoring up the foundations has become a matter of more urgent necessity. If we are facing a “generational catastrophe,” it’s time to reframe the challenges facing K-12 education. Teaching children how to read and to be functional in mathematics are now fundamental to social justice in pandemic times.

What’s driving the “build back better” agenda being promoted by globalists, school change theorists, and high tech evangelists? Should we be focusing, first, on closing the COVID-19 learning gap? Where are the learning recovery plans and strategies when they are needed the most?

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Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce ended the public confusion on February 11, 2021 by announcing that March break would be postponed to the week of April 12. His public rationale was that such a move was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and intended to keep students safe while containing community spread of the virus.

The Minister’s announcement did not come out of nowhere.. One of the province’s top doctors, Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, touched off the frenzied public debate back in late January when he claimed that this year’s March school break should be cancelled, in order to prevent a post-holiday spike in COVID-19 cases.


Calling for the cancellation of March break proved to be anything but popular, but Dr. Roumeliotis brought a vitally important issue to the fore – the need to make better use of the upcoming March break down time. Cancelling the holidays sounded punitive, so postponing them for a few weeks is a bit more palatable. It does, however, stand out as a missed opportunity to use the time to offer ‘Catch-Up Academy’ programs to students struggling mightily to make up for lost learning in our schools.


As Eastern Ontario’s medical officer of health, Roumeliotis’s advice carried considerable weight and it prompted Minister Leece to consider his proposal and its merits. Cancelling March break altogether did not go over well with Ontario teacher unions, most notably the OSSTF’s Harvey Bischof and ETFO’s Sam Hammond. Both quickly dismissed any such plan as an ‘tone deaf’ response that ignored the plight of classroom teachers still reeling from a series of educational upheavals and abrupt schedule changes.

Cancelling or postponing the break is not as outlandish as it first sounded, and especially when one considers an additional rationale. Students in K-12 schools, in Ontario’s major metropolitan school districts, have just missed six more weeks of regular in-school schooling, and some have only been in school for five of the past 11 months.


Missing that much in-person schooling has got to have some impact on student learning, especially for those already struggling to keep up because of learning challenges, socio-cultural disadvantages, or language barriers. Yet, sadly, the extent of the so-called “COVID Slide” goes largely undiagnosed and poorly researched here in Canada,


A McKinsey & Company research summary published in December 2020 provided reasonably reliable estimates of the total potential learning loss to the end of the school year in June 2021. While initial American statistical forecast scenarios of massive learning loss have not materialized, the cumulative impact is still substantial, especially in mathematics, with students, on average, likely to lose 5 to 9 months of learning by year’s end. Among American black students, the learning loss in mathematics averages 6 months to a year. All students are suffering losses, but it’s more acute among those who entered the pandemic with the most disadvantages.


International research corroborates the early American projections and demonstrates conclusively that school closures contributed to an actual COVID slide. Studies conducted in September and November of 2020 in the United Kingdom and Belgium, where students missed 2-3 months of school, confirm that students in the middle grades have suffered learning losses in mathematics and language and writing skills have actually gone backward.


Canadian research on learning loss is hard to unearth. One CBC Radio podcast, posted in November 2020 and billed as “COVID Slide’s Impact on Kids Learning,” presented some evidence of the problem, then defaulted to standard pre-pandemic responses, dismissing learning loss concerns and instead focusing on children’s anxieties, mindfulness exercises, and reducing stress through broader and ‘softer’ student assessments.


Two promising Alberta research studies, cited in passing in the CBC Radio podcast, should not be overlooked. Conducted by University of Alberta educational psychology professor George Georgiou, those studies demonstrate that young readers are lagging behind the learning curve in the wake of the pandemic. School shutdowns and the default to online learning contributed to the problem.


A properly designed and implemented “Catch-Up Academy” program might well be what students, teachers and families need right now. It would also be aligned with the best evidence-based research on what works in closing the knowledge and learning gap after lengthy school disruptions.


Supplementing learning time through ‘catch-up” academies, offered over weekends or during student holiday breaks, is one of three recommended responses to cumulative learning loss. The best option is actually high-dosage one-on-one or small group tutoring tied directly to helping students master subject content in math and reading. When that’s not possible, the next-best thing is catch-up programs during holiday breaks offered by highly trained teachers provide subject specific small class instruction, particularly ‘double dose’ math instruction.


Such remedies need to be considered when students miss so much in-person classroom teaching that it is having a detrimental effect on their learning and well-being. They are, however, essentially patchwork projects for school systems where harried and exhausted teachers are unable to provide the support and upgrading required to get at-risk students back on track or to prepare graduating students for the next stage in their education.


The COVID slide is real and it’s time to consider “Catch Up Academy” programs designed to shore up students’ educational foundations in mathematics, reading and writing. Eleven months into the pandemic, it’s time for some constructive innovation to provide the pandemic generation with more focused learning loss recovery programs.

An earlier version of this post appeared in The Globe and Mail, February 11, 2021. 

Why are traditional school holidays so sacrosanct, even during a global pandemic? Was the Eastern Ontario Medical Officer of Health essentially correct in his assessment of the health risks? Why dis Ontario’s Education Minister opt to postpone rather than cancel the one-week school break? Would the time be better utilized with a “Catch-Up Week” in-school and focused exclusively on closing the ‘COVID Slide’ learning gap?