No more extensions: It’s time to cancel the school year

OPINION: Homeschooling in a pandemic is a fool’s errand and creates stressed-out parents and kids. Why not focus on getting everything in place for September?
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Apr 29, 2020
School across Ontario have been closed since March 23 due to COVID-19.  (iStock.com/mixetto)

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Right now, somewhere in this province, there are parents who don’t much like their children and children who are fed up with their parents.

When the government announced its plans for e-learning, I was excited. Following March break, I was using online resources, such as TVO, to help my kids continue to learn at home. (Full disclosure: TVO is a partner in the ministry’s e-learning program.) I assumed that, under Ontario’s “teacher-led” program, my children would be interacting with their teachers and their classmates, something they desperately missed after three weeks. I also thought that five hours of learning each week would be manageable and easy to handle. Wow, was I wrong. 

Every morning, there are many emails to sort through. Just accessing the Google Classroom is an undertaking: the logins are complicated, and passwords need to be reset by the board. Thankfully, our schoolboard in Peel has reached out to confirm that we have internet and laptops. But the technology that is being used is problematic. Some of the links the teacher sends work only on certain platforms. So if you’re using a Mac, surprise (!) — you need a PC to access the video. Teachers also send scanned documents that need to be printed, filled in, and then uploaded to Google classroom. So you don’t just need computers and Wi-Fi: you need printers, too. 

Some students have contact with their teachers; others have little to none. While the government should be commended for its quick pivot to online learning (because what parent wants their child to be hanging out with Nanny Netflix all day?), there are considerable gaps with homeschooling that need to be addressed. What kids are missing during this pandemic is not homework. What they’re missing are daily interactions with their teachers and their friends. 

I have two children: a seven-year-old, who is in Grade 1, and a nine-year-old, who is in Grade 4. And I have struggled to help them while working from home. I wonder how parents are managing if they have more children, are solo parenting, or have a child who needs additional support. Friends have advised me to take it easy and to do what I can, but if learning from home is mandated by the ministry, how much leeway do parents really have when it comes to ensuring that their kids do their homework? 

This past Sunday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that the province’s publicly funded schools would remain closed until May 31 on advice from public-health officials but that it wasn’t time to cancel the remainder of the school year.

"We will do whatever it takes to keep our students safe," Lecce said in a press release. "The government is taking a careful approach which provides our medical experts the time to review the modelling and make the best decision for the safety of our students and the future of learning."

While it’s the right thing to keep schools closed, learning from home is not working for all Ontario students, and that’s why the government needs to follow other jurisdictions, such as New Brunswick, and cancel the rest of the school year. It should look to Christchurch, New Zealand, or Alberta to identify the impacts of learning under duress and what happens to children when they miss months of schooling. Before the coronavirus, the school year had already been a challenging one for students in Ontario’s public schools. We had had no report cards, multiple school days were missed due to strikes, and there was little feedback from schools as to how students were doing.

The rollout of Ontario’s e-learning program was based on a number of assumptions — that all children in the public-school system had access to the technology needed, that parents would be able to homeschool their children while working full-time from home — that parents had a job they could do from home. And perhaps the biggest one: that kids could handle studying at home with the knowledge that a deadly virus had just upended their lives and that nothing would be the same for some time, if ever. 

When a board’s solution to a lack of Wi-Fi access to is to advise its students to access it via a school parking lot, maybe that should be reason enough to rethink our government’s e-learning approach. (What if the family doesn’t have a car? If they do, how can they work in it?)

Another assumption: that all kids live in safe and loving homes. We know that violence against women has risen during this pandemic, but what about violence against children? Kids Help Phone has seen a significant increase in calls — including a “28-per-cent spike in calls related to violence” — since we were told to stay at home. As a survivor, I used to view school as a refuge. It was teachers who initially intervened. If a child is living with an abusive parent, I guarantee that parent is not sitting with them next to a computer and helping them with their homework. As the weeks stretch on without a clear answer about what is to come, the safety and well-being of these children is at stake. 

We’ve also made assumptions about teachers. We assume that all teachers are tech literate and have set-ups at home to manage this work. We assume that they have the time to interact with our children. But what if they have children at home as well? How do they go about teaching their children while also trying to teach ours? 

What the government should do is cancel the rest of the school year and then focus on planning what September could look like if we were still working from home. Instead of relying on a third-party platform, such as Google Classroom, to administer schoolwork, it could create a plan that would meet the needs of all Ontario students, including those who live in parts of the province with limited or no internet access and students who don’t have a parent at home to help them with schoolwork. With help from and consultation with teachers, the government should be planning for what school would look like in the worst-case scenario. 

Homeschooling is yet another thing parents have been left to figure out. From the school strike, to the extension of March break, to working from home, this school year has been a bust. It’s time to admit that, cancel the rest of the year, and plan for a do-over or a restart in September. The coronavirus has exposed how little we control: it’s time to focus on what we can. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that parents were expected to coordinate five hours of learning each day; in fact, it's five of learning each week. TVO.org regrets the error.

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