Ontario education unions, advocacy groups and parents are raising concerns about a government plan to offer an online learning option for the next school year, saying it could be the start of a permanent change with serious implications for students and workers.
At a news conference hosted by the The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario on Wednesday, the groups argued the change would divert funds from in-person learning and weaken the public education system.
"At a time when the top education priority for the (Premier Doug) Ford government should be to ensure schools across Ontario remain open safely for in-person learning, they're planning to make virtual learning permanent," said ETFO president Sam Hammond.
He and other union and stakeholder panelists argued that in-person learning is crucial to student development, and raised concerns about pressures placed on educators balancing in-person and online teaching demands during the pandemic.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said online learning has widened inequalities among students.
"We are left to wonder why a government that claims to be committed to equity would choose to push an instructional model that creates inequitable learning conditions for students," he said.
The union leaders were reacting to a Tuesday announcement from Education Minister Stephen Lecce that online learning would be offered during the next school year amid continued uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ontario schools are currently operating fully remotely during a third wave of infections that's sickening Ontarians by the thousands each day.
Lecce also said on Tuesday that the province has committed to "consulting" on making online learning available to students beyond the pandemic.
A proposed permanent online learning plan first sparked concern in March when the government shared with stakeholders a draft that outlined different options, including synchronous remote learning and an independent online model for secondary students run by TVO and TFO.
Annie Kidder with advocacy group People for Education said a permanent change to the education system shouldn't be made during a crisis like COVID-19.
"We need to take the time to look at all the implications of online learning," Kidder said Wednesday. "Some of it's working really, really well, but a move to this kind of massive change right now is simply wrong."
A spokeswoman for Lecce did not comment Wednesday on any permanent plans to offer online learning, but said the government wants children to be learning in schools.
"Parents deserve a choice next September, as we continue to face uncertainty as a consequence of this global pandemic," Caitlin Clark said.
Shameela Shakeel, a York Region parent with Ontario Families for Public Education, questioned whether the choices being offered to parents will reduce resources and teachers available for in-person learning.
"I think that if they're going to provide choices, then they need to provide the funding that goes along with those choices," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press