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Archive for the ‘Post-Pandemic Schooling’ Category

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.

HealthySchoolsHarvardChanJune20

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?

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OnlineLearningChildTeacher

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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Parents, students and educators are beginning to confront the hidden costs of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canadian K-12 education.  The initial school shutdown from March to June 2020 precipitated a prolonged period of improvised and spotty ‘home learning,’ followed by further experiments in hybrid blended learning, compounded by extended holiday breaks carrying on into 2021.  All of this will have profound implications for student learning and generate new priorities for the ‘Great Reset’ in 2021.

What’s gradually emerging, from U.S. state to state, Canadian province to province, is a clearer picture of the “COVID-19 slide” setting back learning for all students, but particularly for those from disadvantaged, racialized and marginal communities. Postponing provincial assessments simply delays the time of reckoning.

Looking ahead, it’s time to actually confront the profound impact of the COVID-19 onslaught on the ‘pandemic generation’ of students and educators scrambling to adjust to unexpected ‘pivots’ from one instructional mode to another, amounting ting to ‘on-again’ ‘off-again’ regular classroom instruction.

Signs of the COVID-19 slide are beginning to emerge as student impact studies gradually surface, albeit mostly in U.S. states rather than here in Canada. Early on, an April 2020 North West Education Association (NWEA) study rang the alarm bell with some outsized statistical projections of potential learning loss. A McKinsey & Company research summary published in December 2020 provided more reliable estimates of the total potential learning loss to the end of the school year in June 2021.

While the initial worst-case NWEA forecast scenarios have been averted, the cumulative learning loss could still be 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. “While all students are suffering,” the McKinsey & Company researchers claim,” those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.”

Comparable Canadian research on learning loss is hard to find and national media coverage, echoing education faculty research agendas, tends to focus more on the impact on student well-being than on evidence of learning loss. 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. 

The first study of changes in literacy test scores, comparing September 2020 results on reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension and with the previous three years,  Student in Grades 2 and 3 performed consistently worse across the three measures and, on average, performed between 6 to 8 months below their grade level.

Professor Georgiou’s second study, funded by Alberta Education, followed 1,000 Grade 1 students on multiple reading tasks from September 2019 until February of that year. He used those results to identify students at-risk and then tested them again in September 2020. Just 85 of 409 children, or roughly 20 per cent, were reading at an average level. Some 60 per cent of the children scored lower in September than in January of 2020, before the pandemic.

School shutdowns and the default to online learning have contributed to the problem. Effective early reading instruction requires face-to-face interventions, preferably with literacy specialists, and that was missing during home learning. No one was prepared for the abrupt shift from in-person to online learning, nor were most elementary teachers skilled enough to implement alternative digital learning programs. 

International research corroborates the early American and Alberta findings and demonstrates conclusively that school closures contributed to an actual COVID slide. In Belgium, where schools closed for 3 months in 2020, learning losses were identified in the final year of Primary School in both mathematics and the Dutch language, particularly in schools with  disadvantaged student populations.

A Baseline Writing assessment for Year 7 pupils in the United Kingdom, where schools were shuttered for 2 months, revealed that students had actually gone backwards. The mean score for Year 7 pupils in November 2020 was roughly equivalent to the Year 5 standard in November 2019. The Year 7 cohort, according to UK writing expert Daisy Christodoulou, were 22 months below their expected level of competency in writing.

Setting new priorities will be critical in the COVID-19 education reset and in preparing for the 2021-22 school year. Shoring up the educational foundations in mathematics and reading will be critical in countering the COVID slide and completing the transition to a technology-enabled system is now a matter of urgent necessity. Some exciting innovations can wait when the shaken system requires stabilizers, socio-economic disparities grow, and students need help to re-engage and ‘catch-up’ in post-pandemic learning.    

What’s standing in the way of addressing the COVID-19 Slide in Student Learning? Why is most of the serious research into COVID “Learning Loss” coming from American education authorities, policy think-tanks, and independent research organizations? If provincial testing is suspended in 2020-21, how will we ever know the impact of the repeated school disruptions? What’s standing in the way of tackling the problem and embarking upon ‘learning recovery’ plans?

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Effective school councils, at their best, truly engage parents and give them a meaningful voice in shaping school-level policy affecting students. Far too many of them devolve into ‘window dressing’ and instead expose the limits of parent involvement. When schools shut down in March 2020, local parent consultation committees were rendered almost invisible and sidelined in many school districts. Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to take stock of that impact with a provincial case study of the current state of local school-level parent engagement.

A recent CBC News Nova Scotia investigation by Brittany Wentzell provided penetrating insights into the state of School Advisory Councils (SACs) in Nova Scotia, a middling Canadian province often seen as typifying the national mean. If Nova Scotia is at all representative, the grassroots level of the P-12 education system has been reduced to either empty shells or gone missing during the pandemic. That unsettling CBC News investigation also suggests it’s time to look seriously at proposed governance reforms and sound, implementable policy alternatives to rectify the problem.


Functioning SACs are actually getting harder and harder to find in Nova Scotia. Out of 333 N. S. school websites examined by Wentzell between November 19 and 23, 2020, only one-out-of-four had posted online any recent meeting agendas, minutes, or meeting dates. A majority of school websites had blank or outdated sections on school councils.


Public and parent inquiries are routed to school principals. School administrators jealously guard the identities of SAC members, citing privacy concerns. It’s become next-to-impossible to find out who’s on your local SAC, let alone bring any local concerns forward. The same critical flaws exist at the provincial level with the nearly invisible Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE).


The promise of “enhanced school councils,” first articulated in Dr. Avis Glaze’s January 2018 report, Raise the Bar, has not materialized in any way, shape or form. If anything, school advisory councils are weaker and less effective now than before the province’s elected school boards were eliminated nearly three years ago. Vocal critics of the abolition of Nova Scotia’s elected English school boards three years ago were so absorbed in trying to save the existing system, that most failed to recognize a bigger threat to local democratic voice, the potential for even further weakening of local educational participation and input into decision-making.


School advisory councils first arose in the 1980s in response to two main public pressures: rising concerns about the responsiveness of larger and more complex school district bureaucracies and growing community demands for greater parental involvement in schools. The first Canadian school councils were established under a 1989 B.C. School Act reform which directed that province’s 75 school districts to form a parents’ advisory council in each school to advise “the local board of school trustees, the principal, and staff, on any matter relating to the school.” Most provincial school council initiatives, including that of Nova Scotia, originated between 1992 and 1995. Encouraging local school-level administration to consult with parents did not work, so, province-after-province, from Alberta to Nova Scotia, made school councils mandatory in every school.

The Nova Scotia model was an outgrowth of the proposed structural reforms initiated by Dr. John Savage’s Liberal government in the mid-1990s. Initial plans to decentralize educational decision-making with school-based management (SBM) and governance were abandoned. While the N.S. SBM pilot projects were judged a success, school-level administrators were cool to assuming expanded responsibilities with more accountability to local parents.

School governing councils were effectively neutered. With the exception of Quebec, such bodies across Canada were all consigned to an “advisory role” so as to contain and limit their influence on the shaping of school, board or provincial policy or practice.


School Advisory Councils in Nova Scotia remained almost unchanged from 1996 onwards. Although they were supposed to be mandatory, not every school had one and many were competing for parent loyalties with the longer-established holdover school branches of the N.S. Home and School Association. Like their Ontario counterparts, many SAC’s got into school fundraising and strayed from an explicit policy advisory role.


School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents gradually expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole P-12 school system. In the 2014 report, Disrupting the Status Quo, the Myra Freeman commission found half of Nova Scotians dissatisfied with school system performance and saw the potential for improved governance with “less duplication of services” and “more openness” to working across boundaries inside and outside the system. The Nova Scotia School Boards Association (NSSBA) and its member boards operated in a peculiar educational bubble. When the decision to dissolve all seven English school boards was announced, it hit the leading members of NSSBA and most regional board chairs like a bolt out of the blue.

The Stephen McNeil government, acting upon Glaze’s 2018 report, abolished the English boards and promised a “more coherent and responsive” school system with “enhanced school councils.” Three public accountability initiatives proposed by Glaze were shelved: an independent student assessment agency; a self-governing college of educators; and an education ombudsperson for students and parents.


Education Minister Zach Churchill brushed aside my March 2018 AIMS report, Re-Engineering Education, calling for “enhanced school councils” with a three-year development plan to establish effective and more meaningful a new model of school-community-based education governance. A comparison chart of school-level governance models was provided utilizing World Bank decentralized governance research which identified some 28 specific powers that could be delegated to establish newly-constituted “self-governing schools.”


Instead of enhancing school advisory councils, Churchill and his Education Department have actually weakened the grassroots education bodies. Eleven of the twenty-eight possible roles/responsibilities were enshrined in the 2017 Guide for School Advisory Councils, and the latest iteration, issued in 2019, actually removes some of the previous roles and responsibilities.


The new N.S. SAC guide provides a mandate that is much fuzzier and far more limited in its scope. Completely missing under the new mandate are: advise on the criteria for principal selection, school discipline, and needed school repairs; monitor and report on class sizes; review the annual School Calendar and the annual School Improvement Plan; serve on School Review (School Options) and Site Selection committees; and provide feedback on the School Annual Report to the community.


The cure for Nova Scotia’s democratic and accountability deficit is actually worse than the original disease diagnosed by Dr. Glaze– inflexible, muddled-up, increasingly distant, and unresponsive elected regional boards. It’s hard to see how enfeebling school councils serves the interests of local parents, teachers, employers, or the engaged public. Whether Nova Scotia is indicative of trends province-to-province is a matter requiring further study and investigation. What the case study does reveal is that allowing school councils to atrophy only brings us one step closer to ‘accountability-free’ education.

What impact has the great COVID-19 pandemic disruption had on local school-level democratic governance? How representative is the situation in Nova Scotia? Why did public engagement with parents fall by the wayside during the first phase of the pandemic? Would schools have been better prepared to weather the pandemic if they had stronger school-teacher-parent relations? Is the time ripe for establishing school-based governance and management?

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Flattening the curve of the pandemic is a long slog, but a few lessons are being learned, particularly in the K-12 education domain. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, pandemic emergency response plans embraced a singular education strategy – close all K-12 schools and default to hastily-assembled and largely-untested “home learning” programs.

Following public health directives, close to five million Canadian K-12 students and 451,400 teachers were left scrambling to master unfamiliar technology, slap together learning packages, and muddle-through until the end of the 2019-20 school year. The school year mostly petered-out, ending two-weeks earlier than ever before. Without reliable student tracking or achievement data, assessing the real impact is guesswork. Provincial systems and school districts did their best under stressful conditions. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board, it was aptly described as an “unmitigated disaster.” Few students, parents, teachers, or child psychologists would ever like to see that experience repeated again.

Nine months into the pandemic, public health authorities, ministries of education, and and school system superintendents are singing a different tune: keeping students in school is the first priority as we prepare to ride-out the second wave of viral infections. Everyone is far more acutely aware of the accumulating academic, human, and social costs of shutting down schools, falling unevenly upon children and teens in the most disadvantaged communities.

Combating the relentless virus and keeping regional economies in tact will not likely be greatly affected through system-wide shutdowns. What is needed is a new arsenal of strategies embracing a “flexible response” doctrine, borrowing a phrase popularized by former U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara in the early 1960s. Banishing the devastating pandemic, much like vanquishing the Russian nuclear arms threat, requires a carefully considered set of options and a calibrated range of responses.

With COVID-19 infection rates spiking again, school closures are becoming a distinct possibility, if only as a temporary respite, for shaken-up students, fatigued teachers and bewildered parents. Setting a relatively low infection positivity number, such the 3 per cent figure applied in closing New York City schools, is unwise because, by that standard, all schools will ultimately close at some point this school year.

Some far more effective strategies are coming to the fore:

Isolating Cases and Suspending Exposed Classes
A case-by-case isolation strategy, in provinces and districts with lower transmission rates, has proven reasonably effective, as long as the public health system can sustain contact tracing and isolate children and staff who have COVID-19 exposures. It was working, up until now, in most provinces covered by the Atlantic Bubble. Implementation challenges are compromising its effectiveness in Ontario, where the numbers of infections exceed the capacity for contact tracing.

Short-Time Limited School Closures
Extending school holidays is emerging as the most expedient way of applying an education “circuit breaker.” Starting the Christmas holidays early, as in Quebec and Alberta, and extending the break (as in Manitoba) into January 2021 are the latest “quick fixes” gaining traction from province-to-province right across Canada. It’s much easier to extend school holiday time because that policy response resonates with teachers and education support workers and is more minimally disruptive for working parents. Policy-makers often opt for the path of least resistance.

Dual Track-Student Choice Model
Giving students and families the choice of completing courses in-person or online was implemented in Ontario and it caused an array of unanticipated, disruptive and unpredictable consequences. Students and parents in more affluent school districts in the TDSB chose in-person schooling, while online enrolment was highest in the district’s poorest and most racialized communities. School schedules were constantly changing as students bailed out of in-person classes, generating unexpected demand for online courses. Hundreds of thousands of students in Toronto, Peel and York Region have shifted online, rendering the two-track strategy essentially unsustainable over the longer-term.

Hybrid Blended Learning Model
Moving to a Mixed In-Person and Hybrid Learning Model on a so-called “rotation system” is a response full of implementation bugs. Some Ontario school districts have resorted to dual track delivery models with classes combining in-person and video streamed classes. Since September 2020, New Brunswick has implemented a Hybrid Blended Learning Model with alternating days in all high schools with decidedly mixed results. Curriculum coverage suffers, with loses estimated at up to 30 per cent of learning outcomes, and student participation rates reportedly low during the hybrid off-days in checkerboard the high school schedule.

Defaulting to Virtual Home Learning in Upper Grades
Younger children benefit more from teacher-guided instruction and do not as readily spread the virus, judging from K-6 in-person classes in Denmark and British Columbia. Splitting larger classes in urban or suburban school zones is prohibitively expensive, so school districts resort to shifting everyone to online classes. That has made defaulting to virtual home learning in the upper grades a more practical and more easily implemented option. Online learning has a better track record in Grades 9 to 12 when all students are enrolled and teachers possess the training and resources to use a full repertoire of pedagogies and resources.


The pandemic continues to bedevil our modern bureaucratic school systems that tend to thrive on fixed school schedules, top-down leadership, orderly transitions, systems thinking, and algorithms. Public health pronouncements can, and have already had, unintended adverse effects on our children’s education and well-being. It’s time to apply those lessons.

Closing all schools should probably be the last resort this time around. That’s the consensus among leading British, Canadian and American pediatricians and epidemiologists. Sending kids home should only be considered if and when transmission rates turn schools into vectors and staff infection rates make it impossible to provide a reasonable quality of education.

Nothing is predictable when it comes to the current pandemic. Resurgent rates of infection and community transmission in October and November produced what Science Magazine acknowledged is “a more complex picture” of the very real risks and the need to be flexible and responsive in the face of a rapidly changing, unpredictable public health crisis. While there’s no perfect solution, keeping schools open remains a priority and a “flexible response” strategy will likely be required to ride out the second wave.

Will public health authorities and school systems apply the lessons learned during the first wave of the pandemic? What is the tipping point for moving away from in-person schooling? Which are the most viable alternatives to system-wide shutdowns? Is it a case of responding with flexibility and in response to local or regional pandemic health risks?

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Learnification has finally been exposed and classroom teachers everywhere are gradually awakening to its debilitating effects on their professional autonomy and teaching practice. It took a global education system shutdown to reveal that all things educational had been, over the past forty years, redefined in terms of “learning” and reducing “teaching” to the “facilitation of learning.” Warnings from Dutch-born education philosopher Dr. Gert Biesta, the recognized leader of the reclaiming teaching movement, went unheeded; it took an education crisis to bring about that awakening.

Dr. Gert Biesta, Dutch-born education philosopher, and author of The Rediscovery of Teaching (2017) who identified the dominance of learnification in contemporary education

The gradual shift from teaching to learning from the 1980s onward transformed far more than the language of education, and significantly altered the role, position, and the identity of the teacher. A whole generation of teachers were schooled to shift from teacher as ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’ and, in the eyes of some, to ‘peer at the rear.’ System change theorists and progressive education reformers socialized and in-serviced classroom practitioners to blend-in as a learner among learners in a ‘learning community,’ to the point where many were almost indistinguishable from their students.

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic essentially turned the K-12 education world upside down. Suspending in-person schooling in March 2020 for three months, followed by a pandemic-haunted summer break, then a radically altered crazy-quilt pattern of schedules, has shaken-up our provincial school systems. Today’s generation of teachers has been thrust into technology-enabled distance learning and given a crash course on managing the complexities of hybrid blended learning. Video conferencing and live streaming are emerging as the primary survival tools for educators faced with teaching a combination of in-person and virtual classes.

School systems are still reeling from the COVID-19 impact and it has dealt a serious blow to what I have identified in my new book The State of the System as the modern bureaucratic education state and for the most part disabled its pedagogical companion, learnification. That dramatic development has also thrown school system change theorists and progressive pedagogues for a loop.

With schools closed and traditional classrooms gone, teachers were left on their own to deliver the curriculum and interact, mostly-one-on one, with students. Facing a gallery of students with cameras on logged into Zoom or Microsoft Teams or a system-sanctioned platform changed the terms of engagement in COVID-19 education times. Conventional progressive pedagogical practices such as cooperative learning activities, facilitating group discussion, and project-based learning were far more challenging, if not impossible to implement. Many and perhaps most teachers defaulted to simply assigning homework and hoped for the best. Over the course of the first three months, student participation rates plummeted and an estimated one out of four students went missing in public education.

The new normal in K-12 education is not conducive to the simple resumption of past teaching practices, and particularly elementary learning centres, process-driven activities, and interactive group learning. A whole generation of educators, steeped in progressive pedagogy, is coming to the realization that post-pandemic education may well be defined by physical distancing, spaced-out student desks, plexiglass partitions, and ‘keeping your distance’ education. Standing and delivering a lesson, live-streaming presentations, and whole-class teaching are much more practical and pragmatic responses to post-pandemic educational realities.

Even before the pandemic, teachers were clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools.  That spirit was captured well in a 2016 collection of essays, Flip the System, edited by two Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber, which made the case for teachers to take the lead in reforming education. Like most of the book’s contributors, the co-editors saw education under threat on a global scale by the so-called “forces of neoliberalism,” exemplified in “high stakes accountability, privatization, and a destructive language of learning” ( Evers and Kneyber, 1-7).

Instead of “being told what to achieve and how to achieve it,” Evers and Kneyber urged fellow teachers to “show leadership in regard to the how and the what” of education. What did it mean in practice?  Reasserting teacher agency in an educational world where many advocating “teacher leadership” were, in fact, appropriating the term as “another tool for domestication” rather than “an instrument for deregulation and professionalization.” Flipping the system would move teachers to the centre of the enterprise and resemble more of “a process of emancipation than a ‘system intervention.’” The voice of teachers would be given a meaningful place, instead of being just part of the ‘noise’ reverberating through the system (Evers and Kneyber, 7).

Today it’s fashionable in K-12 education to attribute all that ails the system to globalization and so-called neo-liberal education reform. Standardized testing and accountability did play an instrumental role in promoting and entrenching efficiency and managerialism, while eroding teacher autonomy in the school and community. It was not, however, the main impetus behind the new technocratic educational language of learnification. That shift was promoted by education change gurus and reformers of all persuasions, and — most notably– by education progressives wedded to student-centred learning.

The educational status quo has clearly experienced a major disruption. Self-styled progressives continue to describe students as “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” broader education is “lifelong learning,” and school is a “learning environment.” The dominance of such a language, promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, has served to subvert what Gert Biesta identified as the real point of education – to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone. It may turn out that it took a global pandemic to demonstrate the wisdom of bringing teachers back to centre stage and putting teaching back into K-12 education.

What has happened to teaching in our learnification-driven school systems? To what extent did the almost exclusive focus on “learning” lead to the virtual disappearnance of the teacher? How has the COVID-19 pandemic education crisis impacted upon the teaching practices of classroom teachers? Are “teaching-centred-classrooms,” by definition, always instruments of control or can they be places of emancipation for children? Is the time ripe for reclaiming teaching in education?

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The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic proves, once again, the old adage that “it takes a crisis” and especially so in the world of K-12 education. Surveying the fallout from the school shutdown, the six-month hiatus, and the rocky school-start-up in September, everyone from school leaders to students, educators and parents, is absorbing the lessons, rethinking past assumptions and considering what once seemed like unlikely scenarios.

Pandemic distance learning was mostly an educational disaster. The centralized and overly bureaucratic school system described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Students, parents, and teachers have –in many ways – still not recovered from the disruption and subsequent upheaval.

The three-month long school shutdown exposed what German sociologist Max Weber aptly termed the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure which traps individuals in an invisible web of order, rationality, conformity, and control. We came to see how dependent students, teachers and families were on provincial and school district directives. Little did we realize that it would devolve into a marathon and that possibly the worst was yet to come.

Since the resumption of school in September, the unsettling impact of the massive distance learning experiment, compounded by fears and anxieties over COVID-19 health risks, have destabilized whole school systems. Tens of thousands of Ontario students and parents, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, abandoned in-person schooling for hastily assembled online learning programs. Some 11,000 parents, in spired by Toronto parent Rachel Marmer, flirted with creating pandemic “learning pods” and hiring teacher/tutors to serve small groups of four or five students.

The initial school schedule combining in-person and online classes proved incredibly complex to manage and, in some cases, unsustainable. Hundreds of teachers were reassigned to centrally managed online instruction and school timetables ended up being reorganized several times. Smaller class cohorts have now been collapsed as school districts, starting with the Dufferin-Peel and York Region Catholic boards, readjust again and resort to offering single stream combined courses utilizing live streamed lessons.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families and communities. It’s also looking, more and more, like schools will need to be far more responsive to the radically altered health conditions and shifting preferences of students and families.

Community-school based reform
Some forty years after the advent of decentralized democratic governance in the form of school-based management, provincial authorities and regional centres remain wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service. What is needed is a complete rethink of school governance and a commitment to clear away the obstacles to building a more agile, responsive, community of self-governing schools that puts student needs first. Without re-engineering education governance from the schools up, this is not going to happen.

Humanizing education
Flipping the system has emerged as a new COVID-19 era imperative, but decentralizing management and control, by itself, has little or no effect on what really matters—teaching and learning in the schools. It is only the first stage of an overall strategy to make our schools more democratic, responsive and accountable to parents, teachers, students and communities.

Students should come first in our schools, and this is best achieved in smaller schools operating on a human, student scale. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let’s draw upon the lessons learned through the Human Scale Education (HSE) movement, particularly downsizing high schools, giving students a voice, and building genuine partnerships with parents.

Teaching-centred classrooms
Teachers are clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools. The recent wave of neo-liberal education reform, driven by large-scale testing and accountability, has chipped away at teacher autonomy in the classroom. That has bred what Gert Biesta has termed “learnification” – a new educational language where students are “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” and the classroom is a “learning environment.” Now promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, the technocratic language threatens to subvert the real point of education—to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone.

Teachers know what works in the classroom and are attuned to the spread of unproven theories and practices. Challenging education gurus and the school improvement industry will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Engaging parents in family-centric schools
Parent engagement is now part of the standard educational lexicon, but, in practice, it is incredibly hard to find it exhibited, particularly during the COVID-19 disruption.

One of Canada’s leading researchers on parent-school relations, Debbie Pushor, makes a clear distinction between school-managed parent involvement and genuine parent engagement. School superintendents, consultants and many school principals have a lot to unlearn.
What we need is a completely different model: the family-centric approach, embracing a philosophy of “walking alongside” parents and genuinely supporting the active engagement of the families that make up the school community.

Looking ahead—seize the day
Centralization of school administration has had its day. Eliminating or neutering locally elected school boards has moved us further in the direction of centralizing control over provincial systems. Without access to school-level education governance, concerned parents, educators and the public were left with nowhere to turn to address a host of COVID-19 education problems.

Global learning corporations, exemplified by Pearson International and Google, have achieved dominance through the spread of educational technology and licensed learning resources—and are finally attracting critical scrutiny. The pandemic has also laid bare parental concerns about technology-driven “21st-century learning” and student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy.

A new set of priorities are emerging: put students first, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. The pandemic shock has made us more aware of the critical need for meaningful public engagement, rebuilding social capital and revitalizing local communities. Rescuing the system may turn out to be essentially about taking back our schools and charting a more constructive path forward.

What’s happened to our centralized, bureaucratic and stable K-12 school system? Will the pandemic shock lead to a complete rethinking of the current structure and clear the way for systemic reform? Where do we start in building education back from the schools up?

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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“Canada’s public schools are the envy of the world.” So claim two of Canada’s leading architects and promoters of the current centralized, bureaucratic and learning-focused Canadian K-12 public education system, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves. What’s most surprising and indeed shocking to them is that anyone would question that claim, let alone want to tamper with their creation, especially in Ontario, where the school change theorists first tested and implemented their system-wide reforms.

The global pandemic has not only confounded Canadian school leaders and policy-makers, but thrown Hargreaves and Fullan, the principal players in the school improvement industry, for a loop. Systemic change is derailed when the centralized bureaucratic apparatus becomes discombobulated and top-down directives become impossible to implement in properly functioning schools or to download on teachers in a conventional classroom.

That explains why the leading school change theorists rang a giant alarm bell and pushed the proverbial panic button in a most remarkable Toronto Star guest opinion column on September 23, 2020 with the scary headline “How to ruin a world-class education system.”  Adopting a rather paternalistic and condescending  tone, the two former advisors and confidantes to Ontario Liberal governments mocked today’s Ministers of Education and policy-makers for failing to protect the system during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and for giving implicit aid and comfort to those who threaten to undermine the status quo in the form of a free, universal and accessible single platform with few if any alternatives for students, parents, and families.

The two systemic reformers sound as if they are running scared in COVID-19 education times. The metaphoric System , in their view, is threatened by dark, shadowy forces with a foothold in Ontario and Alberta, two wayward provinces with Conservative governments committed to dismantling their legacy. Any and all deviations from that formula are now deemed to be not merely threats but the slippery slope leading to ruination.  Lurking behind local initiatives and innovations is the spectre of something almost as lethal as the virus — creeping “privatization” 

Provincial education authorities, particularly in Ontario and Alberta, are now dangerous enough to be enemies of the “public good” and unwitting tools of the “wealthy” forsaking the many while implicitly doing the bidding of the few.  Such diabolical forces are fomenting a “crisis” in education through a variety of ruinous means. Taken together the unseen enemy forces are plotting to 1) Undermine public education; 2) create private alternatives; 3)misuse technology; 4) impose austerity; and 5) mortgage the future. Unmasking the hidden agenda is presented as a clarion call to “see the light,” rise up, and save public education.

The fundamental problem with the Hargreaves-Fullan analysis is that is largely fictional and, quite possibly delusional. The origin, of course, of the now infamous “Best System” claim is the two McKinsey and Company reports (2007 and 2010) purporting to identify and then analyze the success of twenty of the world’s leading education systems. It also echoes the very wording used by the Ontario education reform architect Fullan in a high profile  2012 Atlantic article assessing the success of his own initiatives.

Most of Ontario’s success, as touted in the 2010 report, is attributed to “continuity of leadership” under successive Dalton McGuintyKathleen Wynne Liberal education regimes. It began in 2004 when Fullan teamed up with Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy promising to pump $2.6 -billion more into education over the next four years and to raise math and reading results to 70 per cent meeting provincial standards.

Aside from the 2010 McKinsey & Company report forward, written by Fullan, there is surprisingly little about Ontario initiatives in the actual document, except for one passing reference to Parents Reaching Out grants.  Any true cost-benefit analysis must weigh in the balance the fact that education spending skyrocketed by over 57% from 2003 to 2011 to $22 billion while school enrollment fell by some 6 per cent. Much of that massive infusion poured in to support a series of Poverty Reduction initiatives, enhanced special program supports, and universal full day Kindergarten.

Two years after the triumph of the Doug Ford Conservatives in Ontario, the Ontario Liberal education legacy has lost considerable lustre. A “Back to Basics” education platform helped to bring Ford to power in June of 2018. The lavish education spending of the Liberal years may have helped reduce the equity gap, but it fell short of producing better student results. Staking the claim on rising graduation rates is suspect because, while the graduation rate rose from 68 to 83 per cent, we know that “attainment levels” do not usually reflect higher achievement levels, especially when more objective performance measures, such as student Math scores, stagnated during those years.

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic bears most of the responsibility for the current crisis facing public education, in Ontario, Alberta and most other provinces. Three months of emergency home learning was, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster for student social progress, attendance, and achievement. School reopening in September 2020 posed tremendous challenges, especially in higher population provinces with much more severe virus infection rates. Blaming it all on misguided policy choices or mismanagement of the teacher union front is ill-considered and, at best, a partial explanation of what went wrong.

Substandard pandemic education and complicated or unpredictable school schedules have undermined support for the public system. Some 80,000 students in the Toronto District School Board and tens of thousands more across Ontario have turned the system on end by opting for online learning.  Some 11,000 parents have joined a grassroots parent movement initiating “Learning Pods” for teacher-guided home learning, launched by Greater Toronto Area mother Rachel Marmer in July 2020,  Students and parents may well be harming public education by voting with their feet and aggravating existing inequities.

Public education reformers like Hargreaves and Fullan look and sound to be on the defensive, fighting to maintain hegemony over school reform in COVID-19 times. Close observers of the two school change theorists, going back over four decades, will note that the current “education crisis” has brought the “old team” back together again.

Progressive educators clamouring for a new vision for future education exemplifying “Maslow before Bloom got a real surprise with the reappearance of Hargreaves over Fullan.”  “Transforming education for public good, not for private profit that rewards the wealthy few” are more the words of a staunch British Labourite than the utterance of the global head of Fullan Enterprises Inc. hitherto closely aligned with  Pearson International PLC and Microsoft Corporation. It took a crisis, real or imagined, to produce the latest reunion.

What has actually caused the current education crisis?  Was the upheaval simply the result of a cataclysmic pandemic that turned the K-12 public  system upside down?  How much of the disaster is attributable to provincial policy missteps and troubled education labour relations?  Are today’s fearful and anxious parents to blame for choosing alternative options, including online learning and home learning pods?  With parents looking for something different, shouldn’t the system be broadening its range of school options? 

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School systems across Canada, from province to province, are in crisis.  The massive school shutdown during the first phase of COVID-19 was much like a power outage which left students and parents in the dark and educators scrambling to master unfamiliar forms of education technology. Making radical readjustments following lock-step with public health directives upset the normal order in Canadian K-12 education.

EmptyClassTorontoLifeWhat emerged to fill the vacuum was what online learning expert Michael K Barbour aptly termed triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system. Three months of slapped together home learning produced predictable results—bored and tuned-out students, exhausted parents and exasperated teachers.

Charitable observers described emergency home learning as “Doing Our Best Education” under impossible circumstances. It was so sub-standard that harsh critics applied the label “a failure of pandemic proportions.”

BookCoverSOSFinal

The centralized and overly bureaucratic School System described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Instead of rising to the unexpected challenge, provincial school leaders played for time and eventually took refuge in clinging to comfortable structures and ingrained policy responses, such as delaying e-learning implementation until all students had access to technology and the internet. When it was over, at least one quarter of all students went missing and were unaccounted for in Canadian public education.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. The famous German sociologist Max Weber provided us with the very helpful metaphor of the “Iron Cage” capturing well the nature of a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a system of order, rationality, predictability, conformity and control.

A1bBureaucracyMaxWeberIronCage

Education’s “Iron Cage” was exposed during the COVID-19 shutdown and we came to see how dependent students, teachers, and families were on provincial and school district directives.  Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families, and communities.

Hardening of the Bureaucratic Education State

The modern bureaucratic education state has a fundamental problem and its roots run deep.  Since the rise and expansion of the modern bureaucratic state over the past hundred years, public education in Canada has grown far more distant and much less connected with students, families, teachers, and communities. Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve.

Voicing concerns about the state of our public schools can be exceedingly frustrating – and more often than not, an exercise in futility. Parents advocating mathematics or reading curriculum reforms, families seeking improved special needs programs, or communities fighting small school closures regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. During the COVID-19 school shutdown the fragility of the impenetrable fortress was exposed for everyone to see. What my new book provides is a reality check on what’s happened to Canada’s Kindergarten-to-Grade-12 schools and a plan to reclaim them for students, parents, teachers, and communities alike.

Sources of Unease and Stress

Today’s schools have been swallowed up by provincial ministries and regional school authorities. Everywhere you look, the march of urbanized, bureaucratic, centralized K–12 education is nearly complete, marking the triumph of the System over students, parents, teachers, and the engaged public  Putting students first has little meaning in a system that gives priority to management ‘systems,’ exemplifies top-down decision-making, thwarts community-based schools, and processes students like hamburgers in a fast-food operation. Graduation rates have risen so dramatically that high school diplomas are awarded to virtually everyone who meets attendance requirements.

MinistryBuresaucracy

The System, originally conceived as a liberal reform enterprise aimed at expanding mass schooling and broadening access to the populace, largely achieved its goals twenty-five years ago. Having achieved near-universal access, school authorities in the 1980s began to pivot toward introducing bureaucratic managerialism in the form of “instructionally focused education systems.”

In a North American wave of structural reform, the systematizers saw the ‘incoherence’ of instruction from one classroom to another as a problem and teacher autonomy as an obstacle to further modernization. School change came to mean supplanting didactic instruction, knowledge-based curricula, and the teaching of basic skills, while embracing “ambitious instructional experiences and outcomes for all students.” At the school district level, it was reflected in new forms of school consolidation aimed at turning loose aggregations of schools into school systems.

Today’s central administrative offices, layers of administration, big-box elementary schools, and super-sized high schools all testify to the dominance of the trend. Elected school boards, a last vestige of local education democracy, are now considered simply nuisances and fast becoming a threatened species.

The teaching of foundational skills and knowledge was subsumed in a new school system improvement agenda focused on ‘educational excellence and equity.’ The shift also exemplified the logic of standards-and-accountability, resisted by classroom teachers as another encroachment on their prized autonomy as professionals.

Centrally established accountability infrastructure continued to encounter resistance when it came to penetrating what American education analyst Larry Cuban termed the “black box” of classroom practice. That may well explain why growing numbers of classroom teachers are drawing the line in defense of what’s left of teacher autonomy and breathing life into a movement for education on a more human school-level scale.

Education – What Kind and for Whom?

The System, as exposed during the COVID-19 disruption, is not working for students or teachers in the classroom. Educational gurus spawned by the school improvement industry have succeeded not only in commandeering school districts, but in promoting a succession of curricular and pedagogical changes floating on uncontested theories and urban myths. This trend is most visible in the development and provision of resources by commercial purveyors closely aligned with learning corporations, curriculum developers, and faculties of education. Challenging unproven progressive pedagogical theories will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Top-down decision-making, educational managerialism, and rule by the technocrats has run its course. Rebuilding public education needs to begin from the schools up. Putting students first has to become more than a hollow promise and that will require structural reforms, including community school-based governance and management.

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

Re-engineering the System in the wake of COVID-19 has never been more urgent. For all that to happen, the walls must come down, and those closest to students must be given more responsibility for student learning and the quality of public education. The time has come for us to take back our schools and chart a more constructive path forward.

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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Something is stirring among parents in the wake of the three-month-long experience housebound supervising their children’s schooling during a global pandemic. With reopening plans still up in the air and September mere weeks away, a dramatic shift is taking place as COVID-19 distance education impact assessments surface and more and more parents find their public voices. 

After a five-hour-long July 9-10 meeting, the harried and pressured Ottawa-Carleton District School Board voted for all students to return to K-12 schools full-time in September 2020. Ottawa’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches supported full-time resumption and elected trustees were deluged with parent concerns about the possible adverse impact of extending distance learning or hybrid part-time scheduling into the Fall Term.

ReopeningSchoolOttawa

The Ottawa popular media featured the voices of aroused local parents, including working mothers, desperate for a break from home-supervised schooling.  In defending the decision, Board Chair Lynn Scott claimed that the alternative — a hybrid model combining part-time school and remote learning was “never what anybody wanted.”  The coterminous Ottawa Catholic Separate School Board, reading the same signals, followed suit. 

Listening to the vocal Ottawa parents demanding a return to full-time school was reminiscent of the public outcry sparked by news anchor Howard Beale in that memorable scene from the classic 1975 feature film, Network, “I’m as mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.”

Such parental concerns and frustrations, mostly expressed in more modest and composed forms, are popping-up from province-to-province across Canada. Alberta parent activist and family physician Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies described remote learning supervised by parents as “a failure of pandemic proportions” and urged school districts to restore in-person teaching for the children’s sake.

A parent uprising moved the needle in Nova Scotia. Halifax School Advisory Council Chair Claire Bilek spoke for many on July 9, 2020  when she called upon the Nova Scotia Education Minister and his Department to come up with some plan, or any plan, for the resumption of regular schooling in a matter of weeks.  A newly-formed parent group including Halifax child psychologist Erica Baker issued an open letter posing questions that required immediate answers and Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill was compelled to announce that the province was committed to achieving “100 % capacity” by September 2020.     

Advocates for a safe and responsible approach to reopening schools can look to British Columbia for some home-grown lessons.  Reopening school on June 1, albeit on a voluntary basis, brought some 200,000 students safely back to the classroom, with the blessing of Dr. Bonnie Henry, Chief Medical Officer of Health, and Teri Mooring, President of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. That “trial run” was executed with relatively few adverse health experiences and produced important information and feedback to aid in preparation for the 2020-21 school year. The goal is to have even more students in class in September utilizing a five-stage approach, allowing schools to respond quickly in the event of a second wave. All five stages are supported by strict health and safety guidelines from the provincial health officer, the BC Centre for Disease Control and WorkSafeBC.

Ontario’s initial plans to open schools in September were announced June 19 and were prepared after consulting with health experts, including those at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital. The three proposed scenarios were: a full reopening of schools with enhanced health protection measures; a full schedule of distance learning classes; or a hybrid plan, where students would attend in-person school part-time, possibly two days a week, and receive online instruction for the balance of the time. A Sick Kids report, released June 17, provided the rationale, making the case that reopening was essential to relieve the mental health strains and could be accomplished without unduly risking the physical health of children.  The Toronto pediatric experts recommended rigorous hand hygiene and regular screening, but not strict physical distancing or the wearing of masks.  

Suspending school for three months as a lead in to the summer is having harmful effects on the coronavirus generation. We are beginning to take stock of the full impact in terms of student learning loss. Students surveyed June 1-8 by the Upper Canada District School Board in Brockville, Ontario, confirmed that a majority of high schoolers struggled with at home learning and were clearly shortchanged in their education. As most provinces struggle to make a decision on a definitive back-to-school plan, health experts are coming forward to support the Sick Kids report warning about the mental health risks of keeping kids out of the classroom.

Mädchen zappt gelangweilt mit dem Fernbedienung

Without the routine and social connection that school brings, many kids and teens have reported feeling sad, stressed and anxious since the end of in-person classes in mid-March.  Dr. Kiran Pure, a clinical psychologist in Dartmouth, N.S., reports that, even after restrictions have relaxed, her small team of psychologists is still working “basically non-stop and it’s been a lot of mental health support.” She’s been struck by the intensity of the mental health challenges some kids are experiencing, especially those with existing conditions. Her recommendation: Getting students at risk back to school in September is becoming an urgent necessity. 

Bringing students back in September is a hot button issue for educators and, especially so for classroom teachers on the front lines. Drawing comparisons between teachers and other “essential workers” labouring outside their homes throughout the pandemic rankles teachers. Today’s teachers pride themselves on being professionals more like doctors or dentists than essential workers in the child care, food services, delivery, and restaurant fields, many of whom are already back at work. Many educators, speaking freely on social media, are fearful and angry, especially when politicians advocate bringing back schools to help kick-start the stalled economy. 

Medical science will not likely provide a risk-free option, especially now that we have received conflicting advice from respected pediatricians and epidemiologists. Some well-intentioned health professional prescriptions, such as that of Amy Greer, Nisha Thampi and Ashleigh Tuite, apply sound clinical lessons, but may set benchmarks rendering the September resumption of school next-to-impossible. 

Fears and anxieties still run high because the COVID-19 pandemic is horrible and health protection is everyone’s priority.  Finding the right balance and developing a safe and broadly acceptable school resumption plan is fraught with challenges and potential complications. With the curve flattened and infection rates minimal, it is time to get students back to in-person schooling, particularly K-8 students who require daily adult supervision.

Why are increasing numbers of parents calling for the return of full-time, in-person schooling? Who should be making the call on the resumption of school in September 2020?  Where do education ministers and policy advisors turn when public health officials and medical researchers are not fully aligned?  How important is the resumption of school to the full restoration of essential services and a productive economy?  Most importantly, do students, parents and taxpayers have a right to expect a much more effective model of educational delivery in the upcoming 2020-21 school year?  

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