UCDSB raises online education alarm

·4 min read

CORNWALL – The largest publicly funded school board in the region is continuing to sound the alarm over the provincial governments plan to expand online remote-based education in Ontario.

Upper Canada District School Board chair John McAllister appeared at the May 17th SDG Counties Council meeting to get the upper tier municipality to support the opposition to the province’s plans.

McAllister told council his goal was to “raise concern with regard to the potential move by the provincial government which could seriously impact the sustainability of small rural schools.”

In late March details leaked from Queen’s Park of a plan by the Ministry of Education to allow full-time online learning for students so they could choose to not attend a traditional school environment.

McAllister said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 20 per cent of the UCDSB’s 26,500 students are remote learning already. To permanently allow students to choose an online-only model of delivery after the pandemic would erode existing school populations. The risk for rural-based high schools in the UCDSB is even greater.

“Due to the pandemic, schools were closed on and off and as a result the move to online learning,” McAllister said. “Remote learning had to be implemented as a means to deliver education when schools were forced to close. This pandemic response should not be a permanent option.”

McAllister said the province seems to be “hell bent for leather” to expand remote learning.

Schools already offer online learning when courses are unavailable in area secondary schools due to enrollment or lack of interest from student population. The UCDSB is part of a consortium working together to offer those online courses.

He told council that the proposed changes have not accounted for the impact of small, rural, and remote schools operated by local school boards. McAllister also questioned the lack of consultation with stakeholders.

“We are not Toronto or the GTA – we are rural Eastern Ontario and proud of it,” he said. “The opportunity costs are very real with this kind of legislation change.”

According to slides presented at the meeting, any move to permanent online learning for students would come from existing school board budgets and per-pupil funding. These are funded through the Grants for Student Needs semi-annual funding allowances by the Ministry of Education.

To date, no legislation has been tabled by the ministry at the Ontario Legislature. Several other school boards across Ontario, school board associations, and education groups oppose potential permanent online learning being established.

McAllister gave the example of Grade 12 physics class that would normally run in a school like Tagwi Secondary School in Avonmore. A program like that would need 15 students in-class to be able to run, but with the proposed changes that could take students out of a physical school. And that would reduce the student population, forcing more students to “default” to online learning.

Councillors around the virtual table expressed their concern about the risk the provincial plans could have on rural schools.

“The alarm bells need to start sounding on this topic,” said Councillor Kirsten Gardner (South Dundas). “I think that it would be a grave mistake for anyone to think that the online learning model – outside of a pandemic – should be the only thing.”

Gardner said the move would have a negative effect on schools and the students.

“I really despise the fact that the government is just focusing on the educational topic and not absolutely looking at the other things that you learn in elementary and secondary school: working with classmates, problem solving, all those things that need to be done in person.”

Gardner characterized the potential move by the provincial government as being the “toll bell for rural communities.”

“Parents are going to want their kids in an instructor-led class,” she said. “This is a bad situation. We are right at the crossroads where we need to scream as loud as we can that the rural schools are not going to receive a second-class education. We deserve the exact same type of education you would get in any of the urban centres.”

Councillor Jamie MacDonald (North Glengarry) echoed Gardner’s comments and said he could not believe the province was considering the move.

“Given the fact that the internet in our rural areas can’t even support the system,” he said, reporting that many students in his municipality can not connect to the remote learning offered now.

“It’s ridiculous to think that [the province] would even consider this given the Eastern Ontario Regional Network plan is still two-to-five years away,” MacDonald said.

Councillors agreed to support the UCDSB’s opposition to the move to permanent remote learning options being available after the pandemic through a resolution at council that passed unanimously.

Phillip Blancher, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Morrisburg Leader