Parents of online learning students around B.C. are worried that changes to the system could force thousands to find new schools.
The Ministry of Education intends to introduce a new online learning model starting in the 2022-23 year.
Among the changes, students would be required to attend an online learning school within their district — unless they enrol in a school that has been designated to teach students from across the province.
Almost 76,000 students attend the 69 online learning schools in B.C. Of those students, around 14,000 attend online schools outside of their districts, meaning they might no longer be able to attend the school of their family's choosing.
A flexible learning environment
During the pandemic, the Banez family switched to online learning and never looked back.
"I really saw the growth in both my children," said Kaye Banez — especially with her nine-year-old son Lazarus, who has autism.
"He was hitting academic milestones all the time. All these things that we didn't realize he was able to do because in the school system we were dealing with behaviour all the time."
The living room of the Banez family's Richmond, B.C., home has since been turned into a classroom for Lazarus and his seven-year-old sister Estella.
The flexibility of online learning and the specialized program offered by a school in Kamloops, B.C., works for the Banez family — but now they're worried that next year they won't be allowed to re-enrol because the school is outside their district.
"Autism and change do not go well together. The transition is so much harder when we've already found our sanctuary of a school," Banez said.
Autism B.C., of which Banez is a board member, has sent an open letter to the ministry expressing concern and asking for clarity around the changes.
It says many families end up choosing schools outside their district because the support they require isn't available in their local school.
Banez says the organization will meet with the ministry in October.
Star Nap chose online learning for her three children — ranging from kindergarten to Grade 6 — because it offered her family greater flexibility.
The Nap family live in the Comox Valley but the children's online school is based in Powell River, meaning they, too, are at risk of losing the school of their choice.
Nap says online learning creates equity among students.
"For rural families, families up north, Indigenous families in remote communities, online learning is really opening up huge opportunities for them," says Nap.
"It is really levelling the playing field for so many families and that's why these ministry changes are so concerning."
Even though the new online learning model is due to be implemented less than a year from now, parents say details about it remain thin.
According to the Ministry of Education, students and families will be able to choose courses or programs in online schools in their school district or independent school authority — or at a public or independent provincial school, which will be open to students from across B.C.
The ministry says eligible schools are welcome to apply to be provincial providers, but it's unclear how many will be chosen.
"Our goal is to provide the best learning experience possible for students, no matter where they live, and to ensure the least possible disruption to a child's education as we modernize the delivery of online learning programs," the ministry said in a statement.
"The changes are being put in place to support B.C.'s curriculum and ensure every student has equal and consistent access to a quality education."
Banez and Nap say parents haven't been included in the discussions and they're stuck digging for answers.
The ministry says parents and families are invited to voice their concerns at public forums that will be hosted throughout October or through the online learning website. However, the parents say participation in the forums is limited to two parents from each school.