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Laptops, tablets, and SMART boards were all hailed in the early 2000s as the harbingers of a new era of technology-driven educational transformation. It was just the latest in successive waves of technological innovation forecast to improve K-12 education. Billions of education dollars were invested in education technology in recent decades and yet a 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report has demonstrated that such investments have led to “no appreciable improvements” in educational achievement.

As a new high school English teacher in London, UK, back in 2007-08, Daisy Christodoulou was typical of most educators at the time. She was wowed by whiteboard technology and committed to taking advantage of the latest ed tech gadget to facilitate interactive student learning.  Once in the classroom, in spite of her best intentions, Daisy turned it into a regular classroom projector and rarely used the more sophisticated features. She was not alone because that’s exactly what  most of us did in those years,

Optimistic forecasts of the transformative power of classroom computes and Internet access never materialized.  Spending on IT in U.K. schools quadrupled during the SMART Board phase, but it was a bust and dismissed in 2018 as another example of “imposing unwanted technology on schools.” A $1.3-billion 2013 Los Angeles Unified School Board deal with Apple and Pearson Learning to supply iPads was jettisoned a year later because of security vulnerabilities, incomplete curricula, and inadequate teacher training. Many onlookers wondered, if the giants can’t make it work, can anyone?

The promised ed-tech revolution that never seems to arrive is the central focus of Daisy Christodoulou‘s latest book, Teachers vs. Tech?, released just as the COVID-19 school shutdown thrust millions of teachers into the largely uncharted territory of e-learning on the fly.  It also raises the vitally important, but discomforting question: Why has education technology failed in the past, and is it destined to fail in the future? We may well find out with the biggest global experiment in ed-tech e-learning now underway.

Christodoulou’s Teachers vs. Tech? tackles what has become the central issue in the unsettling and crisis-ridden  COVID-19 education era.  It’s an instantly engaging, highly original, and soundly researched guide to identifying the obstacles to harnessing ed-tech in schools, a deadly-accurate assessment of why teachers retain a healthy skepticism about the marvels of ed tech, and a constructive prescription for re-purposing those 21st century machines.

What’s absolutely refreshing about Teachers vs Tech? is the author’s consistent commitment to reasonably objective, evidence-based analysis in a field dominated by tech evangelists and tech fear mongers. Common claims that teachers are conservative and change-averse, by nature, or that education is a “human” enterprise immune to technology do not completely explain the resistance to ed tech interventions. New technologies come with embedded educational pedagogy, she contends, that embraces pseudoscience theory and cuts against the grain of most classroom teachers.

Christodoulou effectively challenges ed tech innovations free riding on unfounded educational theories. Over the past 70 years or so, she correctly reports, cognitive science and psychology have discovered much about how the human mind works and learning happens.  Many of these discoveries came out of scientific investigations associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and information technology. What’s peculiar about this is , in Christodoulou’s words, the gap between what we know about human cognition and what often gets recommended in education technology.”

Education technology is rife with fancy gadgets and fads, most of which are promoted by ed tech evangelists,  school change theorists, or learning corporations. The author finds it very odd that “the faddiest part of education” is the aspect supposedly rooted in scientific research. “Far from establishing sound research-based principles,” she writes, “technology has been used to introduce yet more pseudoscience into the education profession.”  There’s still hope, in her view, that the evidence- based research underpinning learning will eventually find its way into the new technologies.

She does not shy away from tackling the most significant and disputed issues in the integration of education technology into teaching and learning. What are the biggest lessons from the science of learning?  Can technology be effectively used to personalize learning? What’s wrong with saying ‘Just Google It’?  How can technology be used to create active learning? Do mobile smart devices have any place in the classroom? Can technology be employed to build upon the expertise of teachers? How can technology improve student assessment for teachers? All of these questions are answered with remarkably clear, well-supported answers.

The book makes a strong and persuasive case for incorporating the science of learning into technology-assisted classroom teaching.  Drawing upon her first book, Seven Myths about Education (2013), Christodoulou explains how cognitive science has shed new light of the efficacy of explicit instruction for improving student learning.  Direct instruction is judged to be more effective in developing long-term memory to overcome the limitations of short-term memory. Her plea is for ed tech and its associated software to tap more into that form of pedagogy.

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Teachers will be drawn to her thought-provoking chapter on the use and misuse of smart devices in today’s classrooms. Jumping right into the public debate, Christodoulou demonstrates how today’s mobile phones interfere with learning because they are “designed to be distracting” and absorb too much time inside and outside of school. Citing a 2017 meta-review of the research produced by Paul A. Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere, she points out the “negative relationship” between academic achievement and social network activity among young people. Popular claims that adolescents are better at “multi-taking” are judged to be completely unfounded. She favours, on balance, either strictly limiting smart devices or convincing the tech giants to produce devices better suited to teaching and learning environments.

Christodoulou identifies, with remarkable precision, what technology can bring to teaching and student assessment.  Teachers, she shows, have real expertise in what works with students, but they also have blind spots. While there is no substitute for human interaction, ed tech can help teachers to develop more consistency in their delivery and to tap into students’ long term memory,

One of the authors greatest strengths is her uncanny ability to discover, hone-in on, and apply technological solutions that make teaching more meaningful, fulfilling and less onerous when it comes to workload and paperwork. Spaced repetition algorithms, are highlighted as a specific example of how technology can aid teachers in helping students to retain knowledge.  As Education Director of No More Marking, she makes a compelling case for utilizing online comparative judgement technology to improve the process and reliability of student grading.

Christodoulou’s Teachers vs Tech? provides a master class on how to clear away the obstacles to improving K-12 education through the effective and teacher-guided use of technology. Popular and mostly fanciful ed tech myths are shredded, one at a time, and summarized succinctly in this marvelous concluding passage:

Personalization is too often interpreted as being about learning styles and student choice. The existence of powerful search engines is assumed to render long-term memory  irrelevant. Active learning is about faddish and trivial projects. Connected devices are seen as a panacea for all of education’s ills, when they may just make it easier for students to get distracted.”

Implementing ed tech that flies in the face of, or discounts, teacher expertise lies at the heart of the problem. “Successful disruptive innovation solves a problem better than the existing solution,” Christodoulou claims. “Too many education technology innovations just create new problems.” ‘Looking it up on Google,’ she points out, is actually just “a manifestation of discovery learning, an idea which has a long history of failure.”

Technology skeptics expecting another critique of the dominance of the technology giants will be disappointed. The title, Teachers vs. Tech?, ends with a well-placed question mark.  While most of the current ed tech innovations perpetuate an “online life” that is “not on the side of the evidence,” Daisy Christodoulou shows conclusively that we (educators) have only ourselves to blame. “If they’re promoting bad ideas,” she notes, ” it’s at least partly because we’ve made it easy for them to do so.”

What’s the source of the underlying tension between teachers and education technology?  What has contributed to teachers’ skepticism about the marvels of ed-tech innovation?  How was the teachers vs tech tension played out during the COVID-19 school shutdown?  If the latest ed-tech toys and software were programmed with educationally sound, evidence-based pedagogy, would the response of educators be any different?  

“Too big, too unwieldy and utterly dysfunctional.” That’s a neat summary of the mounting criticisms leveled against the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) five short years ago. The problems were so acute that former Deputy Education Minister Charles Pascal was urging the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government to consider other models for running school boards, including breaking it up into smaller administrative units.  The Toronto Star‘s Ontario politics columnist Martin Regg Cohn saw the TDSB’s dysfunctional governance as evidence that trustees should be abolished and boards dissolved, once and for all.

Senior educational leadership at Canada’s largest school board is about to change, once again, and it raises anew questions about the viability of the existing order.  Four years after joining the TDSB, Dr. John Malloy, who was set to retire as Director in November 2020, is now leaving August 1 and heading to California to become chief superintendent at San Ramon Valley Unified School District, a small California school district near San Francisco.  He’s jumping ship just before the 2020-21 school year resumes and while educators everywhere are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and how to safely reopen schools in September of 2020. 

Malloy’s surprise announcement sparked a wave of social media congratulations, mostly from his close political allies and friends in the upper echelons of K-12 education.  Once the initial stir had subsided, tougher questions came to the fore: Why was Dr. Malloy leaving the TDSB colossus and going to a tiny school district in, of all places, Donald Trump’s America? Who would steer the TDSB though the toughest phase of the COVID-19 crisis — the complex and challenging reopening of regular classes? And, perhaps most significantly, what had Malloy accomplished during his relatively short four-year tenure? 

The mammoth TDSB is a sprawling mega-city school district with a budget of more than $3-billion, encompassing 583 schools, enrolling  247,000 students and employing some 40,000 staff.  The Director is supported by four Associate Directors, and reports to an elected board of 22 public school trustees. In terms of size, it is the fourth largest school district in North America.

The TDSB was founded on January 20, 1953 as the Metropolitan Toronto School Board (MTSB), a “super-ordinate umbrella board” to coordinate activities and to apportion tax revenues equitably across the six anglophone and later a francophone school boards within Metro Toronto. The current TDSB was established on January 1, 1998 when the six anglophone metro school boards and MTSB merged into one massive school district. It was unwieldy from the beginning and top-heavy with layers of administration and empowered trustees. A series of initial talks about de-amalgamation, proposed in 2008 by then Education Minister Wynne, went nowhere. 

During the five years prior to Malloy’s arrival, the TDSB lurched from crisis to crisis, and shed two of its chief superintendents, Chris Spence and Donna Quan, each time in the midst of controversies. Director Spence (2009–2013) resigned in the wake of a plagiarism scandal and subsequently had his teaching license revoked (2016).  Dr. Quan, appointed as Acting Director in 2013, left in December 2015 to work under contract with the York University Faculty of Education and the Ministry of Education.  A provincial investigation during 2014-15 conducted by independent consultant Margaret Wilson provided a scathing review and ample evidence of “a culture of fear” within the TDSB, and a toxic environment unrecognized by either experienced trustees or senior administration. 

Current Director John Malloy was hired on January 4, 2016, as a “healer,” initially on an 18-month interim basis. He was essentially parachuted-in from the Ministry of Education where he was Assistant Deputy Minister and Chief Student Achievement Officer. Prior to his short Ministry stint, he was Director of the Hamilton-Wentworth District Board of Education (HWDSB). Closing eight schools in the HWDSB landed him in controversy and precipitated his departure in 2014 from Hamilton to the Ministry. He was a seasoned career administrator who worked his way up the ladder, moving from board-to-board, starting out as a principal with the Metropolitan Separate School Board at Cardinal Carter and Cardinal Newman high schools.   

Malloy brought peace to the conflict-ravaged Toronto DSB and embraced an explicitly progressive equity agenda in tune with the former Wynne government. From 2016 onward, the school district was largely spared from previous Muslim religious freedom protests and violent racist incidents. As Director, Malloy invested much of his time and energy into a TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force and in advancing its core mission. 

The TDSB’s policy of offering school choice for students and parents ran counter to Malloy’s agenda for promoting equity of opportunity and outcomes.  In his introductory video, explaining the Equity Task Force, he professed to be a champion of the board’s ” long-standing commitment to equity and inclusion” and expressed concern that it iwas not being fully met, judging from the persisting inequities affecting ‘racialized’ and ‘marginalized’ students.  His lead facilitator, Liz Rykert went further in identifying the supposed source of those inequities: “There are barriers, creating divisions with schools, or between schools. The impact has been more inequitable outcomes.”

Alternative schools for the arts exemplified one of those barriers to equity and targeting them got the Director into hot water with students and parents in those politically-active, upwardly-mobile communities.  On October 24, 2017,  facing a severe public backlash, Malloy distanced himself from a TDSB draft report recommendation calling for the phasing out of the board’s arts-focused schools. Those schools survived the TDSB initiative. 

Malloy fully embraced the recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed at addressing inequities faced by Indigenous students in the system. It led him to support a plan to remove the use of the word “chief” from all job titles out of respect for Indigenous communities, even though it was not explicitly recommended in the T&R report. It attracted critical fire in some quarters. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee did not mince any words in describing the move as a “ridiculous” example of political correctness. “It does nothing for the cause of indigenous rights, ” he wrote.  “In fact, by making something out of nothing, it discredits the cause, tainting it with the scent of wild-eyed zealotry.”  

The June 2018 election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government put Malloy in a difficult spot, since his elected board, chaired by Robin Pilkey, was aligned more with the NDP opposition at Queen’s Park.  Pilkey’s predecessor Marit Stiles was now NDP Education Critic and fiercely opposed to much of the PC “back to basics” education agenda. It was the TDSB that passed the first of many public board resolutions in the Summer of 2018 condemning the Ford government’s plan to re-instate the 1998 Health and Sex Education curriculum.  This did not endear the Director to the Fordites now inhabiting the Ministry of Education. 

Most Directors of Education spearhead Strategic Planning initiatives aimed at putting their stamp on future directions.  At the TDSB, Malloy’s administration produced an April 2019 “Vision for Learning” embracing a three-point plan for student improvement, enhanced learning culture, and shared leadership. “Equity, well-being and achievement,” in that order, were his priorities, and they were to be embedded in an inclusive school culture. “Shared leadership, productive working relationships, trust, high expectations, and collective efficacy” were the official buzzwords of his administration. It was abundantly clear that they did not really align with the new order in Doug Ford’s Ontario education world. 

Leaving in the first year of a Multi-Year Strategic Plan and during the most challenging phase of the pandemic strikes close observers as odd timing.  After only four years at TDSB, and following a series of leadership changes from 2009 to 2016, Malloy leaves with considerable unfinished business. While his personal legacy will be generally positive, he moved on before he really made a lasting mark on the TDSB educational colossus. In fact. the TDSB remains  “too big” and “too unwieldy” and could easily become just as dysfunctional again.  

Is Toronto’s Super-Board the finest example of a school district that is too big and too distant from the public to be accountable and responsive?  Is it possible to steer the TDSB in a new direction, counter to the dominant professional culture?  Should the TDSB be broken-up into smaller, more governable administrative units? What’s the likelihood that the TDSB bureaucracy would ever accept more decentralized governance, including school-level governance and budgeting, more responsive to local communities?  Most importantly, should these questions be confronted before proceeding to appoint another CEO with a skill set best suited to leading a corporate managerial school system? 

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? 

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? 

What a difference a global health crisis has made in Canadian K-12 education.  All of a sudden everyone has been thrust into “online learning” for weeks on end and “learning packets” are something housebound parents and children see as a welcome break from staring at small screens. It’s a completely new experience for the vast majority of students, teachers and parents with a few notable exceptions — those living in North American school districts with established E-Learning Day programs to support students during unplanned school closures.

eLearning2019DaysCoverThe unexpected and unplanned COVID-16 school closures catapulted teachers into the unfamiliar territory of e-learning, forcing most to learn to use the new technology on the fly. It was no less a shock for parents, scrambling to grapple with Learning at Home programs while tending to their children cooped-up in social isolation. Now that there’s a glint of light at the end of the first wave COVID-19 school shutdown, it may be time to consider being better prepared the next time.

Some North American school districts were far better prepared than others for the radical shift to COVID-19 emergency online learning. Which ones?  Those in the twelve American states which had already adopted E-Learning Days as a means of making-up lost instructional time as a result of winter storms or unexpected calamities.

Former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville made that exact point in a recent interview in the Harvard Gazette (April 10, 2020).  While assessing the paradigm shift to e-learning now underway, he mentioned that school districts in New Hampshire with established e-learning days were far better prepared and made a much “easier transition” because they already had “a back-up online learning system.”

No region in North America cancels school days with the frequency and duration found in Canada’s Maritime provinces. Introducing E-Learning Days in the Maritimes had been proposed, considered, and tossed aside several times in the preceding decade. For those who may have forgotten what transpired, a refresher might be in order.

Since a Nova Scotia Storm Days report by Dr. Jim Gunn in November 2009, a decade ago, not much has changed in terms of  recouping learning time and the number of days lost to storms almost doubled over the intervening years.

A succession of severe snow and ice storms in late February 2015 finally spurred some promised action.  After New Brunswick’s Education Minister  Serge Rousselle  announced he was looking at adding “make-up” days, his Nova Scotia counterpart, Karen Casey, shocked everyone by sounding a public alarm bell.  In a media scrum, Education Minister Casey drew what sounded like ‘a line in the ice’ and openly mused about sending students and teachers to school on Saturdays and during March break to make up for some five lost days.

The resulting furor actually set back the cause. Premier Stephen McNeil was forced to intervene, assuring worried parents that the province was not going to commandeer their upcoming holidays. Nothing more happened.

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Five years ago, E-Learning Days were proposed in media interviews and in a series of commentaries for the Maritime Canada media and local news talk radio stations. Embracing E-Days and providing students without internet access with so-called “blizzard bags” was endorsed in editorials recognizing it as a ‘smart solution’ to appropriating school holidays or extending the school year.

Replacing Storm Days with E-Learning Days was advanced as a way of protecting learning time, clicking-in after five days of school were lost to storm day cancellations.  The mere idea of providing “homework pouches” for those children without internet access was mocked by skeptical teachers as totally impractical and of little value to children or families.

A December 2019 progress report on the spread of E-Learning Days, produced by the U.S.-based Digital Learning Collaborative, demonstrates the gradual spread of E-Learning Days and its vital role in expanding digital learning in mainstream American school districts.

E-Learning Days are now used in a dozen states to fill the specific need to “maintain instruction during unplanned school closures.”  Six U.S. states, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, all have their own policies and exemplary programs.

While the prime use remains as a means of ensuring ‘continuity of learning’ during adverse weather conditions or natural disasters, they are now being employed during “widespread illness” and for parent-teacher conferences or teacher professional development purposes.

Much like COVID-19 Home Learning Days, E-Days work best when they follow a simple, predictable daily schedule. Students access online instructional modules from home or elsewhere, usually in the mornings and submit work at day’s end.

Using a leaning management system, teachers post digital instructional materials and assignments, as well as refer students to core texts or resource books at home. Video conferencing is used periodically for brief check-ins. School systems expect teachers to be available during specific hours in case students have questions or to gather-up and date-stamp assignments. Learning packets are provided to students without access to ed tech or internet.

Critical lessons learned in implementing E-Days prove extremely useful during prolonged periods of school shutdown. “Planning, preparing and implementing E-Learning days well,” the recent report points out, “requires significant effort, and without significant planning and preparation, E-Learning days are unlikely to result in meaningful learning.”

Implementing E-Days now looks entirely feasible in the wake of the prolonged COVID-19 school shutdown. With such a back-up plan, school districts everywhere would definitely be much better prepared next time an epidemic knocks out regular in-person classes.

What stood in the way of adopting E-Learning Day plans and programs before the COVID-19 pandemic?  Why is it that some American states have proven much better equipped for a smooth transition to primarily online learning?  Why did previous Public Health pandemic plans simply default to cancelling school and sending students home without any real continuity of learning plan?  Which Canadian education authority will be the first to establish an exemplary E-Learning Day policy and program? 

Our whole world has been turned upside down and none, more so, than the educational world inside Canada’s provincial school systems. Previous assumptions have been shattered by the frightening COVID-19 virus. Fierce ideological battles over the introduction of high school online courses, which dominated Ontario education warfare for the past two years, have subsided, for now.

What K-12 education is experiencing, going into a second month, may be a school shutdown, but it’s more like a power outage which has left students, teachers, and parents in the dark. Fumbling around to find the light switch is enough of a challenge without having to master unfamiliar education technology tools and completely re-invent the delivery of teaching.

E-learning has arrived, by default, and ministries of education and school districts are scrambling to fill the gap with patched together ‘continuity of learning’ programs.  Even the charter members of the C21 CEO Academy who’ve been espousing “21st Century Learning” dogma for years are suffering culture shock. Especially so, when compelled to make radical readjustments, following lock-step with public health directives. It’s what online learning expert Michael K. Barbour aptly described as  triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system.

With children and families essentially quarantined and homebound, educating children, for the first few weeks, has fallen largely upon parents and guardians. Resuming contact with students on the phone or by Zoom is a good, positive first step, but very soon most parents are going to be desperate for meaningful learning activities to keep their children and teens on track and out of trouble. Interactive games and videos won’t be sufficient if the school hiatus lasts until the end of the year.

Systems under such stress either rise to the dramatically new challenges with smart, innovative plans to bridge the torrent of change – or cling to comfortable structures, revert to familiar policy responses, and apply band-aids.

The COVID-19 has really wacked Canada’s provincial school systems and educational leaders initially lost their bearings, like everyone else. The first and most instinctive response was to reaffirm ingrained and practiced policy nostrums, such as providing equal opportunities for all children and addressing educational inequities first.

With such a mindset, the focus is almost exclusively on ‘worst-case social policy:’the belief that any policy initiative or program that may not reduce social inequities should not be undertaken at all.  In this case, e-learning was initially seen as problematic because of digital access inequities and so, in spite of the system outage, it should not be pursued until we were able to meet everyone’s needs all the time.

Schools and their teachers filled the vacuum and responded in sometimes radically different ways. Some super-keen educators seized the unexpected opportunity to try something new and to provide their students with short video chats, online learning and/or ‘lesson packets’ during the period of social isolation.  For others, the protracted shutdown provided a respite from in-person teaching and so there was no rush to resume parent or teacher-led education, essentially leaving kids and families to fend for themselves.

Some provinces such as Alberta and Ontario have moved quickly to establish Continuity of Learning portals, posted online course material, made e-learning resources readily available, and set explicit expectations for teachers in terms of the assignment of work and the delivery of content. Some provincial responses, most notably Nova Scotia’s Learning at Home program, announced March 30, 2020, took a “feel-better” approach, providing a set of broad guidelines and a smattering of hastily-assembled resources, emphasizing interactive games, fun activities, and healthy living exercises.

E-learning programs require far more planning and preparation than is possible right now in the throes of the coronavirus emergency. Teachers, willingly or not, are being expected to become online instructors on the fly, while everyone struggles to adjust to the brave new world of social distancing and almost everything going digital.

Existing educational inequities may be exacerbated by the current global crisis. Students of upwardly mobile, university educated parents may surge ahead, with more exposure to a knowledge-rich curriculum through Khan Academy, the Core Knowledge Curriculum, and the Discovery Channel.  Poor and marginalized kids and families without access to technology or safe, secure home study space will suffer more than others.

Relying solely upon standard provincial elementary curricula with a well-being focus emphasizing SEL (social and emotional learning) may not serve to advance achievement. In some cases, it might well deprive children of sound, evidence-based instruction in the fundamental skills of reading and mathematics.

“Learning loss” during the shutdown may be a concern of Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, but it’s  the farthest thing from our minds when we’re in the path of a potentially devastating pandemic. Ringing arm bells about students falling off the COVID-19 educational cliff and losing ground to those of other nations pale in significance in such times. Right now, it’s all hands on deck.

Sooner or later, the real impact of the shutdown of K-12 education will hit us. When the black hood of COVID-19 lifts, the imapact will be more apparent.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Spectator (Hamilton, Ontario), April 8, 2020.

What impact did the COVID-19 Pandemic have on school system leaders from province-to-province across Canada?  Why does the term “triage” coined by Michael K. Barbour seem particularly appropriate in describing the e-learning responses of provincial school systems?  Will the COVID-19 health crisis spark lasting changes or not in the conventional mode of operations?  When might it be the time to examine the impact in terms of student learning loss? 

Shaking hands is, for now, socially unacceptable and ‘keeping your distance’ is the new normal in all public settings. Following the strict advice of our Chief Medial Officers of Health, the vast majority of citizens, groups and organizations are complying with ‘physical distancing’ to contain the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.  If the new public health conventions become ingrained and persist beyond the immediate crisis, the fundamental change in social norms outside the household sphere will profoundly alter life in public settings, particularly in K-12 schools and classrooms.

Seeing images of public schools in Taipei, Taiwan, in full operation during the COVID-19 heath crisis, is jarring, if not downright shocking. Based upon hard lessons gleaned from the 2003 SARS pandemic, Taiwanese authorities, including school heads, were quick to recognize the crisis and activated stringent emergency health management plans to keep schools running instead of simply closing them down.

School life during COVID-19 was transformed into a virtual health protection zone. Students at Daija Elementary School in Taipei were asked to disinfect their hands and shoes before entering the school building, while a security guard took their temperature, and, once in class, the children were seated in separated rows wearing masks.  What set that school apart, and drew international attention, was the sight of elementary children eating their own lunches while sitting behind bright yellow dividers on their desks.

With the frightening pandemic upon us, education planners and policy-makers need to look beyond the immediate crisis and start making plans for the resumption of in-person schooling, likely months from now.  A whole generation of students, parents and families, having survived the ravages of the virus, may be not only more receptive to online learning, but expecting, a different kind of K-12 day school education.

School practices intended to promote social distancing may well be an unintended legacy of the current crisis.  If and when influenza pandemic control measures become higher priorities, social distancing conventions that increase space between people and reduce the frequency of contacts may well overturn progressive teaching methodologies and spell the end, in real time, of clustered seating, learning centres, and interactive small group learning.

Today’s student-centred, interactive classroom based upon ‘hands-on’ learning was, it is becoming clear, greatly advanced by the widespread adoption of vaccines and school-based vaccination and related health programs. The emergency health risk posed by COVID-19 is more reminiscent of the scourge of childhood diseases, unchecked by vaccines, up until the 1960s. While class sizes were larger then, the traditional classroom exemplified social distancing  because children were seated in individual desks, spaced apart, lined-up before moving from place to place, and taught personal hygiene in elementary classes.

Classroom design and seating since the 1970s has tended to focus on creating settings that supported ‘active learning’ and reputedly ‘progressive’ teaching methods, such as learning circles, cooperative learning, and project-based groupings.  Scanning the North American physical classroom environment research, it’s striking how may action-research projects were undertaken to demonstrate that teaching children sitting in rows was detrimental to student engagement, widely considered an end in and of itself.

Neglected research on physical proximity and anxieties about crowding will get a much closer look in the post-COVID-19 era of education. Coming out of household quarantine and re-entering school, students, parents and teachers will be far more conscious of infectious diseases and the physical conditions contributing to its transmission. Ministries of education, school districts and principals will likely give a much higher priority to providing face-to-face teaching and learning in classrooms meeting stricter health protection standards.

Academic studies of “peers in proximity” and the few analyzing the “mixing patterns of students in school environments” do provide us with signposts for deeper dives.  One 2015 Dutch study of interpersonal processes in the classroom, conducted by Yvonne Van den Berg, demonstrates how  “a careful management of physical distance between classmates” can improve classroom climate, but it focuses almost exclusively on rectifying identified imbalances in social status in classes where students choose their own seats.

The role of children in the community spread of respiratory diseases such as H1N1 and COVID-19 identified by medical health authorities has attracted relatively little attention from education researchers based in graduate schools of education. One Canadian health policy study, produced in 2013 by University of Toronto researcher Laena Maunula may have compounded the problem. It claimed that public health messages were “dangerous” because they reinforce “bio power” and “governmentality” (i.e., a coercive state reducing citizens to ‘trained subjectivities.’)

For more promising disease prevention studies, we have to look to Europe and the pioneering work of two research teams, led by Marcel Salathé of the Salathe Lab at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Juliette Stehlé of Marseille, working with the University of Lyon-based National Influenza Centre. Utilizing wireless sensor network technology, they have studied the social networks in both primary and secondary schools which facilitate infectious disease transmission. Logging the data for CPIs (close proximity interactions), the researchers honed-in on the problem presented by schools as high potential sites for pandemic spread. Follow-up studies by American health researchers applied this research and concluded that extensive alternative school-based interventions regulating free student movement, as an alternative to school closure, can significantly reduce contacts and potential exposure to infectious diseases.

A more recent 2018 Rand Corporation study, building upon the close proximity studies findings, examined American school influenza pandemic policies and practices. It found that, while strictly limiting student interactions in hallways and classrooms reduced transmission rates, only four of 50 U.S. states ( Georgia, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia) had firm policies authorizing the full range of social distancing regulations. Ontario’s 2013 Health Plan for an Influenza Epidemic, much like those south of the border, relied upon school closures and made no provision for resumption of school after a pandemic outbreak.

Near future schools reopening after the hiatus will not look or feel the same, given the prospects for a second wave.  Taiwanese schools during the current pandemic might represent an extreme akin to a dystopian village, but post-COVID-19 K-12 public schools will in all likelihood incorporate some of those rigid protocols, at least until student, parent and teacher anxieties subside in the coming years.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, March 26, 2020.

What will classrooms look like following the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic?  Will the heightened awareness of the threat of epidemic diseases impact upon attendance monitoring, classroom design and layout, and teaching methodologies?  Will the post-COVID-19 classrooms look more like those in Taiwan during the pandemic?  How much e-learning will survive when face-to-face, in-person teaching resumes in the coming months? 

 

A tectonic shift is underway in global K-12 education in response to the rapid and unpredictable spread of the frightening COVID-19 pandemic. Schools, colleges and universities have shut down almost everywhere leaving students, teachers and families in uncharted territory. With our educational institutions closed, parents are stepping-up to provide improvised ‘homebound’ education and educators are abruptly transitioning, almost by default, to e-learning in the form of distance education or video enhanced online programs. Provincial school authorities are playing catch-up and trotting out hastily-packaged Learn at Home distance learning programs to fill the extended interruption of regular, in-person classes.

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, gave the first signal on Saturday March 14 of a significant change in the official public health response to the pandemic. Public health officials right across Canada are now routinely forecasting lengthy school closures beyond two weeks and possibly until the end of the year.

Closing schools for an additional two weeks after March break came first, and now educators are scrambling to make the sometimes rough and difficult transition to providing e-learning for students unable to report to ‘bricks-and-mortar’ schools. Some schools districts may be able to patch-together short-term e-learning modules, but few are prepared for the shift to online leaning on a system-wide scale.

The global COVID-19 pandemic looks like the realization of the wildest dream of the purveyors of technology-driven “disruptive innovation.” Almost overnight, the competition for online learning is not face-to-face, in-person classes, because those classes are cancelled. Now, it’s down to two options — distance learning and online teaching or nothing at all.   It’s happening so fast that even champions of radical technology innovation such as Michael B. Horn of the Christensen Institute are fearful that it may actually backfire.

Transitioning online cannot happen overnight. Recognized experts on digital learning, including the University of Limerick’s Ann Marcus Quinn, warn that technology is essentially a tool and transitioning is for more complex than simply swapping traditional textbook content for digital material is not the answer.

“Online teaching takes preparation and planning,” says Michael K. Barbour, co-author (with Randy LaBonte) of the annual report, The State of Online Learning in CanadaIt requires “the careful consideration of the tools,” their strengths and ,imitations,  and the adoption of “pedagogical strategies” best suited to the means of delivery. “The situation we currently find ourselves in is one of triage,” Barbour claims. “It is’t online teaching, it is remote teaching in an emergency situation.”

Closing schools makes good sense in the midst of acute public health emergencies if it helps to save lives. Yet it does not necessarily have to mean suspending all teacher-guided instruction and learning.  While Alberta announced on March 15, 2020 that all of its K-12 schools and day care centres were closed indefinitely, elementary and secondary teachers are at school and engaged in developing plans for e-learning to support students.  In the case of the Calgary Board of Education, the top priority became gearing up to offer learning online, especially for high school students in their Grade 12 graduating year.

Much can be learned from the abrupt change to distance learning in countries ravaged by the pandemic.  Surveying the challenges faced by China over the first month of school closures, Adam Tyner, a former American visiting scholar at Shanghai’s Fudan University, identified  some vitally important lessons.

  • Expand your learning management system capabilities so that teachers can post videos and interactive content, students can submit work, and teachers and students can easily engage in ongoing communication.. Upgrade your limited, ‘bare-bones’ student information management system by adding a new module, and hold teacher training sessions to bring teachers up to speed on how to utilize the tech tools;
  • Increase your bandwidth and assume that not all students own smartphones or have computers at home.  Regular television stations can be required to air community programming and to include televised elementary school lessons, on a rotating basis, grade-by-grade during the daytime hours. Secure free internet access, for the duration of the crisis, following the lead of major Chinese providers such as Huawei.
  • Encourage teacher experimentation with every means of communication to maintain active links with students.  Lessons and teacher-guided activities can be delivered in small videos or on podcasts, and mini-lessons or discussions carried out utilizing Zoom and other commercial apps.
  • Address the technology access digital disparities gap: Purchasing 4G-equipped tablets and service may help to bridge the “digital divide” between ‘haves’ and have nots’ when it comes to access to technology and the Internet.
  • Plan for Learning-Challenged Students: Switching from in-class to distance online learning is jolting for many students, and particularly for those who are struggling, need more attention, and perform better in guided activities.
  • Tailoring E-Learning for High School: Teenage students experiencing more freedom than usual need more motivational strategies, ongoing monitoring, and accountability to keep them on track with their learning plans.

Ministries of education and school leaders are gradually recovering from the school culture shock delivered by a totally unexpected and dire public health emergency. Some school district superintendents have lost their bearings and continue to promote conventional system-bound thinking in a rapidly changing educational order. With students being educated at home during the regular school hiatus, e-learning has emerged, almost by default. First off the mark were Alberta and New York City schools,, Ontario is now on board with the March 20, 2020 launch of the first phase of its Learn at Home e-learning initiative.

New challenges are surfacing as high-tech entrepreneurs and dominant learning corporations such as Nelson LC see an opportunity to expand their market share in K-12 education.  Educational leaders, closely aligned with learning corporations and working through the C21Canada CEO Academy, see an opening to advance “21st century learning” as the best preparation for the workplace of the future. Teachers’ concerns, on this score, about the encroachment of corporate interests and the fuzziness of such programs are well founded.

Educational technology has its place when it’s serving the needs of teachers rather than complicating and overburdening their working lives. A brand-new book, Daisy Christodoulou‘s Teachers Versus Tech ?, tackles the question squarely and demonstrates its value, particularly in the case of spaced repetition adaptive algorithms and comparative judgement assessment. 

Seasoned technology learning analysts, such as Henry Fletcher Wood  recognize that online learning has, so far, over-promised and under-delivered when it comes to improving teaching and raising student achievement. Practicing classroom educators like Minnesota K-6 teacher Jon Gustafson are actively engaged in translating and adapting “effective principles of instruction” to online and blended learning. Eschewing jazzy e-learning strategies such as student-centred “PBL/inquiry projects” and video chats, Gustafson is applying best practice, including retrieval practice, explicit writing instruction, and formative assessment.

Getting schools, teachers and students prepared for a longer period of distance learning is fast becoming a priority for provincial education policy-makers and school-level management and curriculum leaders. Let’s hope that evidence-based pedagogy and best teaching practice do not get swept aside in the transformation to e-learning in K-12 education.

How is student learning changing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis?  What is emerging in the hiatus to fill the gap left by the prolonged cancellation of K-12 schools?  Should classroom educators be wary of learning corporations appearing bearing charitable gifts to school systems?  Why are teachers so skeptical of system-wide e-learning and online learning panaceas? Going forward, will teachers and ed tech find a way to live in peaceful coexistence in K-12 education? 

 

 

The global footprint of coronavirus – COVID-19 – is expanding and national governments as well as regional school districts are making the difficult decision to shutdown the schools. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared it a “pandemic” and all of Canada’s education ministers participated in a teleconference to discuss the situation and potential policy responses, specifically following the annual March break for students and teachers.

Political leaders at the highest levels, working closely with public health authorities, are weighing their emergency measures options to combat the pandemic, ranging from school closures to mass quarantines. Closing schools may be politically expedient, but its effectiveness in curbing transmission is far from clear.

School closures have already interrupted the public education of some 300 million students across the globe. The first nation to close schools was Hong Kong, back in January, then Japan on February 27, and now many more jurisdictions have followed suit, including Italy, South Korea, Iran, France, Pakistan, New Delhi, the New York City region and northern Washington State.

Deciding to close schools in the case of COVID-19 is particularly challenging for one major reason. In the initial wave, the novel coronavirus, unlike HIN1 in 2009, had not affected children at high rates. Out of 44,672 initial confirmed cases in China, fewer than 2 per cent occurred in children under 19 years of age, and no deaths were recorded among those younger than 10 years old. That may be a low estimate because the attack rate for children, at a later stage in Shenzhen, was 13 per cent.

Closing schools, in some previous epidemics, has proven helpful in reducing transmission of seasonal flu among children. One 2013 British Medical Journal report, based upon a systematic review of epidemiological studies, concluded that school closures contained rates of transmission, even in the absence of other intentions. Yet determining “the optimal school closure strategy” remained “unclear” because of the wide variation in its forms of implementation.

Tracking the impact of school closures has proven tricky for researchers.  Some closures were limited to individual schools and, in other cases, whole school systems. Closing before the peak of the outbreak or well into the outbreak suggests that decisions are being made as either a precaution or a reaction to rising student influenza-related absenteeism. In some cases, schools close so children can receive antiviral medicines or vaccines, or in conjunction with a strategy of “social distancing.”  Such wide variations in implementation strategies makes it a challenge in determining which change actually affected transmission.

The body of research on school closure impacts during epidemics is surprisingly large, encompassing the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the 2002-03 SARS pandemic, and the 2009 HINI flu outbreak.

Yet the results of those school closures have been mixed. Closing schools for more than two weeks has been linked to lower transmission rates in Hong Kong (seasonal and pandemic flus) and in England (H1N1), but not so in Peru (pandemic) or the United States (during seasonal flu epidemics).

The 2008 Hong Kong outbreak, the 1957 epidemic experience of France, and the 1918 pandemic records in some U.S. cities demonstrate that shutting schools can have no discernible impact, especially if decisions come too late in the cycle of the outbreak. Relying upon older parents or grandparents to be caregivers during closures may actually increase mortality rates among more susceptible populations.

Public heath experts caution educational leaders and school principals against basing decisions on the North American H1N1 experience. “The sensitivity of the 2009 pandemic to school closures probably relates to the high attack rates in children compared with adults,” the BMJ study pointed out. “Outbreaks in which children are less affected” such as COVID-19, “might be less sensitive to school closure.”

Closing schools also has broader socio-economic impacts and unrecognized health effects. There are trade-offs in being overly cautious by closing schools, including potential lengthy disruptions in student learning and compelling parents to stay home from work. Students from lower socio-economic neighbourhoods would also be deprived of school meal programs and cost-free supervised athletics activities.

The most authoritative study of school closure impacts, in the August 2009 issue of The Lancet, actually assesses broader community impacts. If all U.K. schools closed, some 30 per cent of health and social care workers would be taken out of commission, compounding adverse effects on the financial health and viability of communities.

School authorities would be well-advised to consider the potential duration of closures in their emergency response plans.  While it is probably wise to err on the side of caution with school-age children, the longer the closure lasts, the more problematic it becomes, especially in the absence of e-learning bridge programs.

Closing schools for more than two weeks to combat COVID-19, as in the case of Hong Kong, could have a detrimental effect upon the school schedule, year-end-examinations, and the conventional grade- promotion system. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that students will be seriously set back by missing so much instructional time.

Implementing “e-learning plans,” including digital and distance learning, is recommended by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but there’s a major problem with that constructive proposal in its guide for school administrators. It’s feasible in e-learning ready school systems like those in Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, and the State of Ohio, but not yet in our provincial school systems.

Few Canadian school districts are prepared or trained to implement e-learning days system-wide, and they have, with few exceptions, resisted piloting e-leaning modules during winter season storm days.  Scrambling to implement hastily prepared distance learning or online courses will not prove effective at all. Nor are schools fully equipped to administer year-end assessments online or to report the results electronically to students and parents.

Closing schools may be expedient in assuring the concerned public that actions are being taken to control the spread of the contagion. This is especially so now that managing the fears and anxieties of children and families is emerging as a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the lower attack rates for children and the weight of research evidence, it’s much harder to make the call to dismiss classes and suspend school for what may well be an indeterminate period of time.

 Should schools be closed to contain and reduce the transmission of the 2019-20 coronavirus?  What does past experience closing schools during epidemics tell us?  Should schools be closed early in the cycle as a precaution or in reaction to escalating attack rates among children and their teachers? How prepared are school districts to implement e-learning as a bridge in the teaching-learning process?  If schools do close, the question is — for how long given the unpredictability of the spreading contagion?  

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, March 11, 2020. 

Implementing true inclusive education is one of the most formidable challenges facing Canadian provincial school systems.  Scanning the Inclusion and Special Education policy landscape from province to province, New Brunswick stands out as an outlier. The so-called “New Brunswick Model” adopted in 2006 and formally confirmed in 2012-13 focuses almost exclusively on integrating all students into regular or mainstream classes.

DominicCardyInclusionEducation Minister Dominic Cardy’s recent announcement of a New Brunswick inclusion policy review was welcomed by concerned parents and teachers. Defenders of the existing inclusion model under Policy 322 reacted with dismay and trepidation, and for good reason.  Public consultations have revealed, once again, that the total inclusion classroom is not working for every student nor for far too many regular teachers.  While former Education Minister Jody Carr and his entourage are travelling the world promoting that model, it is on decidedly shaky ground at home.

Everyone today supports inclusive education and there can be no turning back.  Societal changes, human rights advocacy, and the growing complexity of classrooms in terms of capabilities, language, race, ethnicity and gender have combined to forge a broader commitment to truly inclusive education.

What looked progressive fourteen years ago when Wayne MacKay proposed the current N.B. inclusion model has now been superseded by newer, more flexible and more responsive approaches better suited to meeting the full range of student needs. We are also now more attuned to significant differences on the question of how to achieve meaningful, properly-resourced inclusion for all students across the full spectrum of abilities.

A lot is at stake in the latest review of inclusive education policy. That is because the so-called ‘New Brunswick Model’ is a provincial export product and is being considered for implementation in Ireland. An October 2019 report from the Irish National Council on Special Education (NCSE), heavily influenced by Carr’s policy advocacy, tilted in the direction of adopting a ‘total inclusion model’ and it has inspired a fierce debate in Ireland.

The proposed policy reform has put New Brunswick education under the microscope. No other Canadian province has chosen to follow the N.B. inclusion path, and this has been duly noted by vocal critics of the whole scheme in the widely-read Irish Times newspaper.

Much has been made of UN Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas-Aguilar’s commendation of New Brunswick for its compliance with international human rights declarations. That was, it must be noted, one of the only positive mentions in her report which critiqued almost every other province for their ‘uneven application’ of policies across all public services, including heath, education, housing and transit.

Many educators and researchers in Ireland are puzzled as to why the N.B. model emerged as a preferred option when it is at odds with inclusive policy elsewhere. Most provinces, including neighbouring Nova Scotia, offer ‘inclusive education’ with options ranging from integration into regular classrooms to special ‘resource’ classes to specialized programs in alternative school settings.

Defenders of the N.B. model were rocked a year ago by a series of Toronto Globe and Mail investigative stories focusing on whether “inclusive classrooms” were working for most if not all students. The deeply moving story of Grayson Kahn, a 7-year-old Ontario boy with autism excluded from his school for assaulting an Education Assistant, captured nation-wide attention. It also departed from the usual script – extolling the virtues of inclusion – and, instead, raised serious questions about the difficulties of accommodating children with complex needs in regular classrooms.

Teachers in Canada, including many in New Brunswick, are reporting a dramatic rise in violent incidents disrupting their classrooms, and rising tensions with families who feel their regular stream children are at risk. For the past five years, periodic concerns have been voiced by the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA) over threats to the safety of teachers and education assistants.

Some educators in the Globe and Mail series addressed the so-called ‘elephant in the classroom,’ daring to wonder if inclusion has gone too far for students with very complex needs.  Inclusiveness will not work, they claimed, without “a thoughtful rethinking of how we teach children with diverse needs and how we structure the school day.”

School districts in Canada are beginning to acknowledge the need for “time out rooms” to allow students experiencing meltdowns space and time to recover. Families with children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities are increasingly being asked to pick up kids early, start the school day later or simply keep them home for the entire day.

Complicating matters is the fact that apart from a few advocacy or parent group surveys, most Canadian school districts, including those in New Brunswick, didn’t formally track these exclusions or shortened days until recently mandated to do so.

The N.B. inclusion system is full of holes, judging from concerns raised by parents and teachers during Minister Cardy’s current round of consultations.  Co-founder of Riverbend Community School in Moncton, Rebecca Halliday, was one of those speaking up for changes. She has fought an uphill battle for five years to establish a school for severely learning challenged students. Her struggles mirror those of hundreds of parents and families effectively ‘excluded’ by the total inclusion classroom policy and practice.

Conducting a provincial review opens the door, once again, to providing support for the most severely challenged students and need relief for their exhausted parents. What Halliday’s school struggle amply demonstrates is that it will not happen in New Brunswick without the introduction of a tuition support program being extended to students and families without the means to pay the tuition themselves.

Such a program exists in Nova Scotia where, since September 2004, provincial education authorities have offered a Tuition Support Program (TSP). It not only plugged the service gap, but broadened public access to intensive support programs designed for students with acute learning difficulties. Under the TSP, a small number of private, independent Special Education schools  (DSEPS) (Grade 3–12) not only exist, but fill the gap by providing a vitally important lifeline in the continuum of student support services.

Inclusion is an ideal to which most advanced education countries, provinces and states aspire.  One of the best and most influential international statements, the Salamanca Statement on Principles and Practice in Special Needs Education (UNESCO 1994), continues to inform much of the current policy on inclusive education. Children should be learning together in schools – but not necessarily in one particular setting.

With the exception of New Brunswick, provincial ministries of education take their cue from the Salamanca Statement and are working toward inclusive education by removing barriers and improving student supports across a range of program service options, including intensive support for children with the most complex needs. Today, inclusive education is the overriding philosophy and the real challenge is to ensure that students, parents, and service providers find the ‘right fit’ for every child or teen.

Winning a September 2016 Zero Project prize and recent praise from a UN agency, it turns out, is a dubious honour for New Brunswick because it involves expending so much time and energy defending a regular class setting for everyone, when some fare far better in smaller classes with more intensive resource support and others thrive with more individualized attention.

Instead of merely complying with a UN philosophical declaration, Minister Cardy and the Department would be better advised to study carefully the findings of Nova Scotia’s 2018 Inclusive Education Commission and its prescription. Following that extensive and comprehensive review, Nova Scotia is now fully engaged in building a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), much better aligned with best practice and evidence-informed research.

  • An earlier version of this post appeared in the Telegraph-Journal, March 5, 2020.

Tackling inclusion stirs up passions and raises sensitive issues, but it’s time to address the key policy questions: Will the New Brunswick Model ever work, given the complex challenges in today’s classrooms?  What are the real and unintended consequences of mandatory inclusion in the absence of other viable, attractive or effective alternatives?  Is the properly-resourced all-inclusive classroom model feasible or sustainable?  If the N>B. model is optimal, why are school districts everywhere tilting more in the direction of implementing MTSS and attempting to support everyone across the full continuum of needs?