Five education experts share their policy priorities for elementary and secondary schools

When the COVID-19 pandemic first forced schools to close their doors in March 2020, educators and child welfare experts soon raised concerns about how students would cope with the disruption to their education, as well as the effects on teachers, educational staff and families coping with virtual schooling. After a year and a half of lengthy closures, sporadic reopenings and evolving public health guidelines, those concerns have only multiplied.

With schools set to reopen next week, and a fourth pandemic wave taking hold, we reached out to education policy experts to ask them one question: What is the most important thing to consider as schools reopen this fall?

Here are five answers from Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education; York University researcher Beyhan Farhadi; Professor Carol Campbell of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; Barb Dobrowolski, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association; and Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.

We need a task force on health and education

Annie Kidder, Executive Director, People for Education

It’s hard to imagine that there could be just one “most important thing” to focus on as kids go back to school this year. And there is a danger that in prioritizing one area over another, we will lose sight of the big picture. So really, the most important thing to consider is that we — our schools, our students, educators and support staff, families — need a coherent plan and vision for education that goes far beyond crisis response.

Yes, the plan must include things like mandatory vaccinations and proof of vaccination certificates, but it must also include strategies to address the systemic cracks and inequities exposed and amplified by the pandemic. We need a vision for the future of public education that acknowledges how much the world has changed and how much education needs to change with it.

Last August, I wrote that in order for schools to reopen, we needed a task force. I must confess it never occurred to me we’d be in the same situation one year later, but that need has only grown since then.

Ontario needs a Health and Education Task Force to provide input and response to government policy ideas before they are implemented, and where possible, develop consensus around priorities and plans for education in the coming year(s).

The task force should include representatives from government, school boards, education unions, parents, students, public health, principals, directors of education, early childhood education, faculties of education, school mental health organizations, and more.

British Columbia has an Education Steering Committee that has met regularly throughout the pandemic to provide advice to government. Scotland has a COVID-19 Recovery Group with a mandate to “bring together decision-makers and key influencers to ensure that the delivery of child care, early learning and education maintains a strong focus on excellence and equity for all” and to “be a forum for frank and open discussion about what is working and what and where more improvement is required.”

Ontario’s two million students need a plan that is about more than mathematics and masks. A Health and Education Task Force could help provide that.

We must ensure online learning is equitable

Beyhan Farhadi, Postdoctoral Visitor, Faculty of Education, York University

During the COVID-19 school year, school districts across the country gave families the option of enrolling their students in full-time, synchronous virtual school. This is costly to run when delivered effectively, but districts were given this mandate without sufficient funding. This means they either depleted their reserves to provide virtual students with a dedicated teacher or they compelled virtual students to share their teacher with students learning in person. Teachers were, in practice, doing double the work.

This model of virtual education is most commonly known in Canada as “hybrid,” but it is also referred to as “simultaneous instruction” or “concurrent education.” However it is branded, it is an emergency model that emerged in the context of a pandemic and a chronically underfunded public education system. Hybrid is inequitable for students and unsustainable for educators.

Teaching and learning are not passive activities and effective classrooms provide opportunities for collaboration and inquiry that affirm the diversity of student needs and experience. Rather than ensuring schools are safer, we are misusing technology to offload the responsibility of education onto already stretched families who often choose online education out of necessity, not choice. Virtual students during the pandemic are more likely to be living in regions vulnerable to COVID-19, many of which are racialized communities that are also under-resourced.

When we reopen this fall, we must ensure that virtual students have access to the expertise of dedicated teachers whose engagement with students online differs from those learning face-to-face. In its absence, virtual students are likely to experience disadvantage.

Further, students learning in person are vulnerable to intrusions of privacy as they are live-streamed into homes, and teachers without instructional support are logistically constrained as they try to meet the needs of students on both sides of the screen. In a hybrid model, all students lose.

Districts have a responsibility to meet the needs of K-12 students in a compulsory public education system, whose social function is to support the development of the whole child. Hybrid education is an experiment that has already failed too many students. If we care about a just recovery, we can’t afford to normalize it.

Supporting educators is necessary for student success

Carol Campbell, Professor, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Ensuring a safe return to in-person schooling for students is paramount. While the central focus should be on students, it is important to ensure that there is an equal focus on the safety, needs and experiences of the people who work in education.

There is substantial evidence that the most important factor within a school for improving students’ learning is the work of teachers and quality of teaching. The pandemic has also made clear the vital importance of all staff who work in education.

However, worryingly, evidence in Canada indicates that educators have experienced deteriorating mental and physical health during the pandemic; high levels of work stress and workload demands; and frustration with shifting requirements and expectations. Remote learning and in-person learning require different teaching and learning strategies — they are not simply interchangeable. The emergency shift to “hybrid” learning is highly problematic when the priority must be ensuring high-quality teaching and learning to support individual students’ progress.

Pre-pandemic, evidence was clear that high-performing education systems invested in, developed, valued and respected the education profession. Policy-makers in many countries were interested in developing a professionally led education system involving system policies that would value the education profession and educators’ role in leading educational improvements, and provide continuing professional learning to support the ongoing development of professional expertise and practice. Governments that have drawn on the expertise of education workers have tended to fare better in navigating through the pandemic.

However, many governments’ emergency responses replaced the shift to a professionally led education system with centrally directed mandates, micro-management and a lack of appropriate support for educators and support staff. It is most important now to reverse these trends: to trust, respect and value educators and support staff; to attend to their safety, mental and physical health, including adequate PPE and safety protocols; to shift from mandating and micro-managing emergency-response learning approaches to respecting educators’ professional judgement for high-quality teaching and learning; and to provide appropriate, relevant professional learning to support educators so they can support the students they serve.

Health and safety measures must be backed up with student supports

Barb Dobrowolski, President, Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association

Teachers and education workers have gone above and beyond since the pandemic began, repeatedly adapting and creating brand new teaching practices to best support student success in challenging circumstances, often with little to no support from the government.

We all want students back in school, learning in-person, and experiencing the benefits of what that opportunity has to offer. As we enter a new school year, in the midst of a fourth wave of COVID-19 driven by the Delta variant, we must remember that no single measure, on its own, will be enough to protect our schools and communities from COVID-19.

Certainly, we need mandatory vaccinations in schools. Based upon the overwhelming evidence provided by medical experts, Ontario’s teacher unions believe everyone working in or attending school who is eligible to be vaccinated, should be vaccinated.

But vaccines are not a policy silver bullet. There are still many who cannot be vaccinated, including children under 12, which is why high vaccination rates must be accompanied by expert-recommended measures.

This is why Catholic teachers have called on the government to invest what is needed and to implement the health and safety measures called for by education and public health experts:

    • smaller class sizes for proper physical distancing;
    • improved ventilation, with standards and thresholds established and air quality results published to achieve transparency;
    • COVID-19 outbreak management, including robust testing and tracing;
    • masking for all staff and students; and
    • improved vaccination education, outreach and accessibility.

But health and safety measures are only one part of the equation. It has been difficult to watch our students suffer through the longest in-class learning disruption in North America, and struggle with unprecedented learning loss and long-term mental health concerns. To address these issues, the government must provide the supports students desperately need, including smaller class sizes for increased individual attention, ending the failed hybrid model, and offering more professional services to address student well-being.

It is only though a comprehensive and integrative approach — one that prioritizes safety, well-being and student learning — that we will achieve a safe and sustainable return to in-person learning.

Keeping schools open will minimize disruption to learning

Karen Littlewood, President, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO)

When asked what we think is the most important thing to consider when schools reopen, our response is the education, safety and well-being of students, staff, families and communities. This has always been our mandate and we have not lost sight of it during a pandemic.

Five elements are necessary to keeping schools open and keeping everyone safe:

  • Vaccinations
  • Ventilation
  • Masking and Personal Protective Equipment
  • Physical Distancing
  • COVID Testing

We want to see schools remain open to minimize disruption to learning. This past year was a challenge for students, families and educators as many had to switch back and forth between in-person and remote learning due to sharp increases in COVID-19 cases. Educators have always had to adapt to the needs of students and did their very best to provide a positive learning experience under challenging circumstances.