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Archive for the ‘Post-Pandemic Schooling’ Category

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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‘Everyone is doing their best’ was the prevailing narrative during the COVID-19 school disruption.  That may explain why school authorities either suspended system-wide student tracking or chose to conceal data collected relating to student progress and engagement.  A June 2020 CBC Investigation into this issue in four Atlantic Canadian provinces came up almost empty  and revealed that no one was able to provide any credible information on how many students went missing during pandemic distance learning.

“Doing Our Best” education may well have lasting consequences for students. Coming out of a three-month suspension of in-person, face-to-face teaching and learning, we are beginning to confront the hard realities: the coronavirus generation has fallen months behind, most housebound children were bored and disengaged, and struggling students have lost the most ground.

What we know about the real COVID-19 impact on children and teens did not emanate from education officialdom. With senior education leaders and school districts remaining tight-lipped, public opinion survey pollsters stepped up to fill the vacuum and assist intrepid education reporters trying to penetrate the wall of silence. Back on May 10, over a month ago, the Angus Reid Institute broke the code: “Canadian children are done with school from home, fear falling behind, and miss their friends.” The kids, it turned out, were not alright.

What actually happened during the COVID-19 crisis is coming into clearer focus with the benefit of hindsight. For the first month,  ministries of education, school districts, and educators scrambled to fill the learning gap with “emergency distance learning,” building upon patchy online infrastructure and cobbled together together curriculum combining e-learning and hastily-assembled ‘learning packages.” With few exceptions, Canadian K-12 education was completely unprepared for the system-wide shutdowns.

Thrown completely off-kilter, educational leadership was left fumbling around in the dark looking for the proverbial light switch. Perpetually optimistic technology-driven educators found ‘silver linings amidst the dark clouds, progressive educators focused on responding to children’s “fears, anxieties and trauma,” and global thought leaders rhapsodized about a “better normal where Maslow (finally triumphed) over Bloom. With little warning, parents were expected to guide “Home Learning” with their housebound children.  It looked ominous, but most educators sounded upbeat, made the best of an unsatisfactory situation, and retained some hope that it would all work out somehow.

Taking a closer look at the May 2020 Angus Reid survey, it’s now clear that, despite everyone’s efforts, the COVID-19 educational experience was decidedly substandard for the vast majority of Canada’s five million K-12 students, and possibly damaging for those from disadvantaged and racialized communities. Here’s a succinct summary of the worrisome findings:

  • The biggest worry for over half of all children (ages 10-17) surveyed was “missing out on  work” this school year and next, roughly equal the proportion who feared getting sick themselves.
  • A clear majority of children “attending” school online (60 per cent) were bored or  unmotivated, not very busy with the work, but still “keeping up” with the reduced academic expectations.
  • Children and teens, outside of homework, spent the vast majority of their time glued to small screens, dominated by watching TV/Netflicks, You Tube (88 per cent), and playing video games (74 per cent).
  • Parents may have been doing their best, but it was not good enough, because over half of teens ages 13 to 17 reported needing more help with their work.
  • Some 70 per cent of children and teens reported missing seeing friends and participating in extra-curricular activities, but fewer than 1 in 10 (8 per cent) were willing to concede that they missed going to school.

Missing so much regular schooling, after two of the three months, was already having adverse effects. Most of the students reported that they were “missing out” on school work and were struggling to remain positive, mainly because of deteriorating friendships and relationships.  The so-called “home education blues” were real and, for the most part, went unacknowledged and unreported by Canadian school authorities.

Close education observers and inquisitive parents seeking straight talk about the actual impact of the COVID-19 school shutdown invariably come up empty when seeking answers to questions or any evidence to support periodic accounts of heroic individual efforts or hopeful reports of ‘silver linings.” Education reports out of the United States provided us with a much-needed wake-up call when it came to getting the straight goods on what was really happening to students and parents during the school shutdown.

Two key U.S. education stories exposed the harsh realities of COVID-19 education for students, parents and teachers and raised serious questions about the veil of silence shrouding Canadian K-12 education. New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein blew the lid off the real story on June 5, 2020 with a feature demonstrating the impact in terms of learning loss.  By September 2020, she reported, most students would be “months behind” with “some losing the equivalent of a full year’s worth of academic gains.” Furthermore, “racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps” would “most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections and direct instruction from teachers.”

A Boston Globe feature on May 23 confirmed that the COVID-19 disruption exposed the reality of digital divide. One in five Boston Public Schools children were found to be “unplugged” from Google Classroom and disengaged to the point where they were essentially “virtual dropouts.” Significant education technology challenges and language difficulties were keeping children from continuing school online. That finding was confirmed in a large-scale study of some 800,000 students conducted by a team of Harvard and Brown university researchers. Mining academic research into student use of Zearn, an online math program, they reported that student progress in math between March 15 and April 30 decreased by some 48 per cent in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, and by one-third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, in microcosm, the extent of the public disclosure deficit in our provincial public education systems. Without American investigative education reporting, we would probably know little or nothing about the stubborn COVID-19 problems of getting students to engage in distance learning or the incredible proportion of children and teens who skipped out on home learning or lacked proper access to the alternative programs.  Knowing that the kids are not alright should spark some needed public discussion about working together on developing and acting upon a comprehensive, evidence-based learning recovery plan.

What happened to the initial plans for COVID-19 Home Learning in Canadian K-12 education? How did most children and teens fare in terms of “continuous learning” during the COVID-19 school disruption? Why were provincial and district education authorities so tight-lipped about the state of distance learning?  Should ministries of education and school districts be responsible for monitoring, collecting and reporting on alternative distance learning programs?  Does the public have a right to know how many children logged-in, remained engaged, and met the expected curricular standards? 

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The COVID-19 pandemic will shutter most Canadian and American schools for three months, preceding the normal two month summer holiday. For the first month, educational leaders, district superintendents, and classroom educators scrambled to patch-together emergency Learn at Home programs, combining distance learning and conventional ‘old school’ lesson packages delivered both online and by ground delivery services. While the great COVID-19 disruption did inspire bursts of creativity, exemplified on blogs and social media, as well as in webinars, the vast majority of students, parents and teachers were essentially left to their own devices, often with patchy curriculum, unreliable internet, and uneven teaching.  Students living in poverty, with severe learning challenges, and complex needs will likely bear the brunt of the fallout from the suspension of regular, in-person, K-12 education. 

Prominent education thought leaders appear to see the educational disruption as an opportunity to re-imagine education. “Moving ahead in the COVID-19 era,” Pamela Osmond-Johnson, Carol Campbell, and Katina Pollock recently claimed,  will involve building upon its lessons and tapping into the vision articulated by Education International, the global teachers’ organization. Coming out of a maelstrom of “illness, grief and trauma,” they believe that “Maslow before Bloom must be “the guiding principle moving forward.”  We should not be seduced by technology in the form of virtual schools or real time video-conferencing, but instead leverage the new-found creativity, build upon project-based learning experimentation, and seek a permanent cessation of standardized student assessment.  In this new path forward, there is no mention whatsoever of the costs of the great disruption in terms of student intellectual growth and achievement. 

Missing twelve weeks of schooling and then experiencing two months of school holidays is bound to have significant impact in terms of student learning loss. Reopening schools and resuming regular K-12 in-school education will have to confront the reality that students, out of school for nearly half a year, will be significantly behind in their expected academic and social development. An American education research institute, the Portland, Oregon-based, North West Education Association has already produced some sobering forecasts, based upon statistical analysis, demonstrating the potential “learning loss” during the shutdown. That study builds upon earlier Brookings Institute studies examining the impact of “summer learning loss’ on student achievement.  Schools and particularly front-line teachers will confront this problem first-hand when school resumes in September 2020 or sometime thereafter.  

Millions of students have either missed out or been minimally engaged in COVID-19 emergency Learn at Home education. While COVID-19 disruption period student attendance and participation rates are not readily accessible in Canada, the evidence surfacing in dozens of American states is that student attendance has been highly irregular, and as many as 25 per cent of all students rarely or never checked-in with their teachers. Leading American education policy researcher Andrew Rotherham of Bellweather Education, reports that anywhere from 7 million to 12 million students have received “no formal schooling” because of the uneven implementation of “in-between” programs, as well as inequities in device and internet access. 

Seasonal learning research allows researchers to compare student learning patterns when school is in versus out of session — and it has definite application in the case of the prolonged COVID-19 school shutdown. NWEA researchers Megan Kuhfeld and Beth Tarasawa estimated COVID-19-related learning loss by using data from a group of 5 million Grade 3 to 8 students who took assessment tests in 2017-18. The research compared what student achievement would be if learning growth continued at the same rate as when schools closed to what it would be if learning loss was typical of a summer slide.

The April 2020 NWEA study was the first to attempt an assessment of the potential learning loss. For their purposes, the two researchers used March 15, 2015 as the last day of school. Their COVID-19 slide estimates, according to the report, suggest students would return in fall 2020 with 63 to 68 % of the learning gains in reading and less than 50% of the learning gains in mathematics— and nearly a year behind in some grades — compared to a regular school year. One caveat is that, unlike the summer holidays, thre was some distance learning provided, likely offsetting some of the projected losses. 

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With 60 million students in Canada and the United States out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educational planners are now wrestling with the fallout affecting students and families, including how to approach instruction in the fall of 2020 when most students will be farther behind than in a typical year.  In Canada, unlike the United States, there is little or no research on the impact of missing school, so it will be largely a matter of guesswork and may fall to regular classroom teachers to figure it out on their own 

The COVID-19 school interruption and summer slide will, in all likelihood, aggravate educational inequalities, compounding the “operation catch-up” problem facing educators. The NWEA researchers, in fact, estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures will not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading. Thus, in preparing for fall 2020, education leaders and classroom educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind and further differentiate instruction.

Minimizing or ignoring the learning loss, which is common in the Canadian K-12 education milieu, would be unwise given the length of the gap in schooling and the reality of deepening inequities in access to education.  Here, too, education policy-makers will have to look to the United States for evidence-based recovery plans. The NWEA research team recommends four remedial strategies:

  1. Conduct initial diagnostic student assessments to ascertain where to start your instruction. It needs to be done early, will vary by grade level, and should be as individualized as possible;
  2. Addressing the greater variability in academic skills will render whole class teaching very challenging, and will require more differentiation to meet the learning needs of all students;
  3. Develop student “catch-up” plans that address the ground that needs to be covered and the learning growth rates needed to get back-on-track with learning goals that are more ambitious than usual and yet obtainable;
  4. Respond to the socio-emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by being sensitive to challenging students while being responsive to their student well-being. Be prepared for some residual effects and accommodate them in your teaching, including family illness, loss of older relatives, parental job losses, and fear of catching the virus themselves. 

Missing school for such a prolonged period will, in all likelihood, have major impacts upon student achievement. With the acute period of COVID-19 infections behind us, the focus of schooling will be on “catching-up” on missed work and acquiring the skills to move forward in academic and social development.  Without standardized student assessments, school systems will be flying blind with no way of either assessing the COVID-19 impact or measuring progress made in closing the anticipated student achievement gap. Instead of rhapsodizing about a post-COVID-19 burst of creativity, it may be wiser to focus on shoring up the educational foundations with evidence-informed educational recovery plans.  

What’s most critical in the planning for the resumption of in-school teaching and learning?  Should we be pivoting from “care-mongering” and social and emotional support to addressing the glaring academic inequities and the significant loss in learning across the grades? What are the most essential components of an educational recovery plan responsive to the academic and intellectual development needs of the COVID-19 generation of students? 

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Staggered school start times, medical checkpoints, classes split in half, desks spaced two metres apart, social distancing in hallways, eating lunch in classrooms, and washing hands every two hours. These are just some of the changes being implemented in the highly contested first phase of the reopening of Quebec schools after the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the premiers and public health officers actively planning for opening up again, senior school superintendents are hunkered down and now beginning to map out a plan for post-COVID-19 schools in the era of physical distancing. Seeing images of Danish ‘social distancing’ elementary schools with classrooms full of students spurred some initial detailed resumption planning. It still shocked many parents and educators to see students re-entering schools on May 11 all over Quebec outside of Montreal.

Ensuring the safety and health of students and staff will be the highest priority, of course, in determining when schools can safely re-open. Looking for guideposts, school planners have looked to educational systems like Denmark, as well as New Zealand and California, all ahead of the curve in planning for the transition to regular classes. Facing pushback from anxious parents and teachers, many provinces will be drawn to a go-slow “rota approach” like Australia and Scotland, adopting a one-day-a-week or alternating days schedule.

Schools resumed for pre-school to Grade 5 students in Denmark on April 15, as the first phase in that nation’s relaxation of strict coronavirus lockdown measures. It’s fairly makeshift because, as Danish head teacher Tanja Linnet conceded, “we need to make plans for terrorist attack here—but not this kind of attack.”

Under new Danish school regulations complying with public health sanitary guidelines, start times are staggered, students are seated two metres apart, schoolyards are divided into play zones, and entrance/exit routes diagrammed on school maps. Students wash their hands upon arrival, and then every two hours, and all contact surfaces, including door handles, are disinfected twice per school day.

New Zealand Education Minister Chris Hipkins began to  tackle the huge logistical challenges as he prepared to meet his target re-opening date of April 29.  That meant moving from Level 4 (shutdown) to Level 3 (partial opening) of schools and early childhood centres. Schools are reopening in “waves.” Teachers were allowed back first to plan for the continuation of online learning and the resumption of in-class teaching. Distance learning continues to be delivered from schools, especially in communities where broadband connections are better and teachers have ready access to more resources.

Children of essential workers were identified in New Zealand as a priority in returning to school, making it easier for their parents to do their jobs. Starting with the integration of children of parents critical to the workforce sparked vocal criticism from principals who claimed it sent out the signal that schools are little more than “baby-sitting services.”  Senior high school students, they claimed, were in greater need of teacher-guided instruction to mitigate the impact of closure on “learning loss” and preparedness for their next stage.

Getting younger kids back to school emerged as a priority for California Governor Gavin Newsom in a state where 6.1 million students from K to 12 were enrolled in “distance learning” for weeks on end. Addressing educational inequities was California’s biggest concern, especially in poor and marginalized Los Angeles region communities where students lack computers, adequate broadband, and suitable home study conditions.

Schools in Canada’s provincial K-12 systems will likely look significantly different when they reopen elsewhere either in June or September of 2020. Among the operational changes you can expect are: staggered school schedules to create smaller grade-level cohorts; regular medical check-ins with temperature monitoring; deep cleaning and stricter sanitization measures; social distance classrooms and movement routines: blended (combined seat-based and online) learning; classroom take-out lunch services: expanded school-based supply teacher pools;  limited athletics and arts cocurricular programs; small, congregated Special Needs/ ELL classes; and academic ‘catch-up’ programs to mitigate significant ‘learning loss’. among certain cohorts of students.

Announcing the resumption of school will spark renewed fears of a flare-up of COVID-19 spread by ‘vectors’ in the communal school environment. School re-openings announced by, or in conjunction with public health authorities, may help to allay such student and parent concerns. We are already seeing a parent backlash comparable to the “My kid is not going to be a Guinea Pig” Facebook protest which garnered more than 40,000 supporters in Denmark.

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Seasoned public health observers, spurred on by National Globe and Mail Health Reporter Andre Picard, claim that it is pre-mature in May 2020 for Quebec students to be heading back to school.  Principals and teachers need to be brought on-side to ensure that school re-opening is ultimately a success. Properly equipping teachers with protective masks and access to PPE, personal protective equipment, may be necessary until the immediate threat of a second wave has passed. Reducing class size groupings and expanding the school-level pool of substitute teachers should help to allay teacher concerns.

Whether the radical COVID-19 shift to e-learning will actually stick is more difficult to assess. Thrust unprepared into the emergency use of e-learning technology may sour teachers on adopting ed tech and activate their social justice impulses, focusing on the digital divide in terms of access.  Parents and families struggling to cope with the fears, anxieties, and stress of a pandemic are not at their best. When the crisis is finally over, this totally unplanned “experiment” with e-learning may well send everyone in K-12 education back into their comfort zones.

*An earlier and abridged version of this commentary appeared in The Globe and Mail, April 28, 2020.

What will post-COVID-19 Canadian schools look like? What is the tipping point when it is safe to reopen schools without significant health risks?  Is the early reopening in Quebec an aberration, or a predictor of what is to come? Why is it so much easier to authorize a full-system shutdown than it is to stage a resumption of school following a pandemic? 

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