What education in Ontario might look like after COVID-19

OPINION: Pre-coronavirus, many objected to the Tories' emphasis on e-learning. The pandemic could change all that
By Matt Gurney - Published on Mar 19, 2020
Education Minister Stephen Lecce speaks at a press conference at Queen's Park on March 3. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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It was intended to be a major concession. And it was barely two weeks ago. But reading the stories now feels like taking a trip back in time and to an entirely different planet.

When you refer to a CBC story about it from March 3, you’ll find Ontario’s education minister, Stephen Lecce, quoted as saying, “We believe that online learning provides a multitude of benefits for students, particularly when it comes to diversifying the course offerings and really embracing 21st century learning. But at the end of the day, we have listened and heard that parents want to be in the driver's seat of that decision.’”

I read those words, and am writing these ones, from self-isolation, having recently returned from the United States. It's almost impossible to keep track of all the ways the world has changed since March 3. It's equally impossible to guess how much more they'll have changed by tomorrow. But one thing is already becoming clear — the resistance to e-learning might have made sense in the context of the long-ago era of two weeks ago, but now, as Canadians increasingly come to realize that our effective national quarantine may well drag on for months, e-learning might become absolutely necessary. (Full disclosure: TVO is a provider of online-learning courses for Ontario high-school students.) Or at least an accepted part of a new normal.

Indeed, the internet has already made this challenging situation vastly more tolerable than it would have been only 10 or 15 years ago. I can still communicate in real time with my family and friends. Some normal economic activity can continue. I can grocery shop and bank online. These are all things that we have come to take for granted but that are, in historical terms, incredibly new. It’s going to make it easier and vastly more pleasant to try to ride this thing out. Imagine your last few days without music or video streaming.

But there are some parts of our society that have been less revolutionized by these digital innovations and adaptations. I was speaking yesterday with a friend of mine, a lawyer who was speculating about just how much of Ontario‘s daily legal business could be shifted to virtual settings. Ontario’s courts are a known laggard on digital adoption, but now, given the state of emergency, everything has to be considered.

The same has got to be true of education. Millions of Ontario children are currently out of school. I’d be surprised if we got any of them back in a classroom any earlier than the fall. This is already going to put strain on families, purely in terms of keeping the kids from tearing the house apart and murdering each other. (Siblings are a blessing except when they're beating each other up over an iPad.) But, at a certain point, we’re also going to need to start looking ahead to their educational needs. Homeschooling might be able to fill some of the gaps for some of the families in need. But it’s not going to work as a solution across the board. So what the hell are we going to do?

Again, probably nothing, at least not instantly. The crisis is moving so quickly and poses such immediate dangers to life and public safety that government attention must be focused on the first-order priorities. In normal circumstances, we would think that education is such a first-order priority. But, for the first time in generations, Canadians are being reminded that things we took for granted are actually frighteningly fragile. Our food supply, our health-care system and pharmaceutical reserves, our energy grid and our sanitation services, our front-line emergency-response services, our telecommunications — these are the things we’re going to need in the coming months. These are the first-order priorities. We've been blessed to have them for so long that we've forgotten they aren't inherent. But they can fail. Don’t be surprised if overwhelmed governments simply kick the can of education down the road until the next academic year so that they can focus on these suddenly threatened essential services.

But let’s think beyond the challenges of the next 30 or 60 days. Even if we are able to bring the virus rapidly under control, and it does not resurge when we begin to reduce restrictions on normal social and economic activity, this experience is going to have a profound effect on us. It would be surprising, to say the least, if our currently unfolding scramble to discover just how much of our society we can operate remotely were to somehow miss education.

The dispute between the teachers and the Doug Ford government seems like old news now. The strikes certainly stopped being a problem when the government shut all the schools. But, sooner or later, we'll have to reopen schools, and that will require getting new contracts lined up for the teachers. I wonder whether both sides, and all Ontarians, will feel a bit different about online learning after months of necessary self-isolation than they did when it seemed like just another sought-after fiscal efficiency from a habitually clumsy government.

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