Ontario teachers' unions slam province for considering permanent online learning option

Published May 5, 2021 12:55 p.m. ET
Updated May 6, 2021 7:41 a.m. ET

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TORONTO -- Ontario teachers’ unions are sounding the alarm after the provincial government announced its holding consultations on whether or not to make online learning options a permanent choice for families once the pandemic ends.

Union leaders and parents voiced their concerns during a news conference on Wednesday, saying the plans will undermine Ontario's publically funded education system and will harm students.

“Their plan to make online classes permanent means a student could go from Kindergarten to Grade 12 without ever setting foot inside a school,” Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), told reporters.

“They're planning to make virtual learning permanent while undermining Ontario’s publicly funded education system. It's a plan that they’re busy working on behind closed doors during a global pandemic.”

According to a confidential presentation by the ministry of education first obtained by The Globe and Mail in March, the government is considering three forms of online school.

One version would offer full-day synchronous virtual learning for students of all ages and the second version would offer online classes taught by teachers to high school students. School boards would run both versions.

The third version, and the most controversial, would offer a fully independent online learning option for high school students who prefer to learn at their own pace. This option would be run by TVO for English-language students or TFO for French-language students.

Hammond expressed concern on Wednesday about plans to have online education privatized or run by TVO, a Crown corporation owned by the Government of Ontario.

“These changes are a clear attempt to privatize online education in Ontario, and to redirect funding from Ontario's public schools to for-profit providers,” he said. “This can mean no school boards, no one elected trustees, no oversight, and no accountability.”

“This is how Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce plan to open the floodgates of privatization in Ontario by diverting precious dollars away from an already underfunded school system.”

Hammond said experience shows that schools just need to lose a few students before they close down or lose additional support for students with special needs. With an online learning option, there will be less support for these publically funded schools, he said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Tuesday that the current plan to offer online learning is strictly for the 2021-22 school year only, however, the government is holding consultations on whether the choice should remain an option for students post-pandemic.

He did not release any other details on the government’s post pandemic plans for online learning.

Ontario Elementary Catholic Teachers Association President Liz Stuart told reporters on Wednesday the past year has shown how difficult online learning can be for young students.

“Education and health experts are clear that in person learning is best for academic, social, and emotional development,” she said.

“SickKids have stated that a daily in-person school model is best for the educational and developmental needs of children, as it allows the consistency, stability, and equity.”

Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation President Harvey Bischoff told reporters on Wednesday the government is “shamefully” using the cover of a global pandemic to carry out their plans for online learning, a long-standing issue between unions and the government.

“I've been asked what the pros are to the government's current plan. I can’t answer because I don't know what problem they're trying to solve,” he said.

“This plan will not support all families. It will reinforce a digital divide, and be inaccessible to many. It will be a choice for some but not all.”

The union’s leaders told reporters that remote learning was necessary during the pandemic, but the downsides are becoming increasingly obvious. They noted that thousands of students across the province are struggling with online learning, and others have exited from the school system altogether.

They also noted that school boards are already making individualized accommodations for students unable to attend school for health reasons and due to other issues.

“He [Lecce] doesn't know what he's doing, quite frankly, in my opinion, and he doesn't have answers,” Hammond said. “You know, the fact that he keeps referring to, ‘we have to consult or we are looking at it,’ is extremely, extremely troubling.” 

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