Dr. Carol Campbell is Associate Professor of Leadership and Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. 

Oct. 5 is World Teachers’ Day – a time to give special thanks to educators in this highly challenging year. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, says students are facing a “generational catastrophe” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, more than 90 per cent of students have been affected by school closures. Students, educators and families have had to pivot to emergency response remote learning and, now, to a range of in-person, online and hybrid learning options in different education systems.

In Ontario, the government announced, changed and revised back-to-school plans in the run up to the new school year. Schools and school boards are working flat-out to fulfil the government’s current directives. Ontario’s back-to-school plan has encountered many implementation challenges and concerns. As we enter October, while some students are safely continuing their learning, many students are in crowded classrooms where the recommended physical distancing is not feasible. With concerns about in-school conditions and rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, more parents are switching to online learning, which requires further reorganization of classes – including combining grades and collapsing students into larger class sizes, in some cases.  Some online students are only now being allocated teachers.

Already one out of of every 10 schools in Ontario has a confirmed COVID-19 case. Families are dealing with students staying home with symptoms and awaiting test results. School staff are becoming unwell.

The current reality is undesirable and unsustainable. Doubling down on the existing back-to-school plan is not going to fix this. It is time for the government to revise its plan and to provide resources to fully ensure distancing on school buses, small class sizes across Ontario, and access to internet and personal devices for all students and educators. These goals are affordable and doable within the existing provincial budget and federal back-to-school funding. We cannot afford to wait.

The decisions needed now are not just about what will happen over the next few weeks. We have reached a fork in the road for schooling and students, and the pathway chosen will affect individual and societal progress for many years. Already the pandemic is having negative consequences for students’ education, including:

Increasing inequities in learning opportunities: A survey by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation found that the students who had the most negative experiences with online learning in the spring were those living in poverty, those with special education needs, and those learning the English language. The impact of the digital divide has become pronounced, with concerns about inequitable choices and consequences between in-school and online learning, especially for racialized and low-income communities who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Impacting learning outcomes: While remote learning continues, school closures negatively impact students’ learning. The U.K. Education Endowment Foundation concluded: “school closures are likely to reverse progress to narrow the gap (between disadvantaged students and their peers) in the last decade.” Ontario research found that during school breaks, achievement gaps between students of higher and lower socio-economic status increase and can be cumulative over time.

Declining physical activity: Students report being less physically active. It is important for children’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional development to play and spend time outdoors. Extra-curricular opportunities and after-school clubs support students’ interests and engagement, yet availability of these activities is at risk.

Deteriorating mental health: Many students have experienced deteriorating mental health, including anxiety, feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Students are spending more time on screens than is advised by the Canadian Paediatric Society, which is of major concern with continued reliance on online learning.

Overstretching adults: Parents, educators and support staff have stepped up to navigate challenges and support students’ learning in new ways, but they are overstretched with increasing demands.

Back-to-school will continue to be bumpy unless we seize this moment to address the current issues. The short-term consequences of not fully investing in our education system will be continued disruption. The long-term consequences may be a generation of students with reduced future opportunities, which also negatively effects wider social and economic development. Positive educational outcomes connect to future health, happiness, employability, income, community engagement and reduced criminal behaviour.

This is the government’s fork in the road for education plans. It is a deciding moment in history when a major choice is required. The government can continue with directive, reactive, short-term decisions and current plans. Or it can shift to a collaborative, respectful and supportive partnership with the education sector and families to co-develop proactive plans to deal with issues together over the long haul of the pandemic. It is this second choice that is needed. The government must fulfil its mandate to the people of Ontario by listening carefully to the voices, experiences and expertise of all involved in our education system who know what is best for students and follow through with action to ensure that we do not have a “generational catastrophe.”

Our students’ futures are at stake. Together, we can create the path ahead for a better Ontario.