Opinion

Remote learning might stay after COVID ends—and as a teacher and mom, that terrifies me

The province of Ontario says virtual learning is here to stay. Here’s why that should worry you.

As a teacher and a mom, I was heartbroken when I heard that remote learning might remain a permanent option in Ontario, post-COVID. Of course I’m grateful for virtual learning right now—it’s the safest option for our kids and our educators when we’re suffering through this scary third wave, with the highest COVID numbers yet. But that doesn’t mean we should keep online schools open indefinitely. 

If that sounds alarmist, or anti-choice, so be it. My fellow parents should know this: Maintaining remote learning post-COVID is an attempt to use a pandemic to defund public education long-term. I can’t stop thinking of the community, and social and emotional development, that our children risk losing. 

Taking desperately-needed dollars (already $1.6 billion less for the 2021-22 school year, according to a Ministry of Education memo) and using them to provide virtual school—instead of investing in making our public schools safe—is a disservice to our kids, and a slap in the face to all the hardworking teachers I know. 

As we’ve read, ad nauseum, for the past pandemic year, in-person learning is irreplaceable, for older kids and little kids alike. We know children aren’t meant to sit at a computer for hours upon hours of Zoom school all day. Even the most engaging teachers—those who started incorporating online workouts and cooking demonstrations into their lesson plans—saw students struggle and melt down. I teach high school English and Drama, and remote learning isn’t working for them, either. Last spring my students lost their prom, their athletics, and they struggled to connect virtually for group work or meaningful academic discourse. And now it’s happening again this year. 

This third COVID wave has again shipwrecked families, isolating them on their own chaotic islands without the proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child. And that’s for those who are lucky enough to attempt to work from home while supervising remote school. Essential workers who can’t stay home are scrambling for emergency childcare. (And don’t forget those less fortunate: If you work at a fast-food chain or in an Amazon distribution centre, you don’t even qualify for emergency childcare.) Schools—with gyms, libraries, auditoriums, laughter, art and photos on the walls—are a massive part of that village. They’re crucial for lower-income communities, newly-arrived immigrant families, and kids just learning English, who need equitable access to education, opportunities for in-person language development and a gateway to the many services schools link them with. 

In my teaching career so far, I’ve explained how to shop for feminine hygiene products in English (a new language for many of my students), called 911, accompanied a child in an ambulance, consoled a crying parent, and led discussions on a Monday when a peer was killed over the weekend (more than once, tragically). The role of teacher is one of nuanced compassion, insight and an ability to “pivot” endlessly (before the pandemic made that term ubiquitous). Some days I’m a counsellor, social worker, therapist, an IT support worker, and a referral service for our frayed health system, all in one. 

Much of this can’t happen through a Zoom screen—especially when many students don’t turn on cameras or microphones. (This assumes they have laptops with working cameras and mics to begin with.) In-person, my fellow teachers and I constantly readjust and read the room. We cater to their passions and interests, which we gauge from their expressions, their laughter, and what clubs they join. When we’re not in an actual room, and we have no physical space, our chances for observational insight are lost. Our ability to respond and support dissolves.

Yes, Zoom and Slack and Google Classroom are the way of the future—these are tech skills my students will use as adults. But it’s easy to develop tech skills later in life. What these kids haven’t learned yet is how to stand in front of a room of humans and speak, or how to negotiate social situations. A mix of learning styles and exceptionalities helps kids learn from each other. And I think most parents also respect the value in interaction outside the home, and exposure to other cultures, ideas, and personalities.

Instead of investing significantly in our schools and teachers, the province has now, repeatedly, handed out petty cash instead. But how will these $400-per-child payments, given to families instead of schools, really help us in the big picture? Yes, this money means a lot to those whose earnings have been decimated by the pandemic, but at what cost? Are we being given cash to spend on school supplies and apps instead of safe, well-ventilated schools with smaller class sizes and distanced desks? Most parents know that $400 per child certainly won’t go far towards funding a learning pod teacher, or even just paying a babysitter. (Never mind that mixing households or bubbling isn’t allowed during the current lockdown, anyway.) Are we supposed to take this money and pay for Kumon or ABCmouse.com, transferring our tax dollars into international corporate pockets? (Kumon is a Japanese-owned company; ABC Mouse is American.) These online course options are created by private companies, with little to no room for adaptations to individual kids’ needs.

Most parents don’t want—or have the resources—to recreate their own schools, hire pod teachers, build a curriculum, or wade through private, less vetted, online options. They don’t have the time or energy to then also make sure their kids are actually sitting down and completing the virtual lessons. Why is it so hard for our government to understand that as Canadians, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect safe, vibrant, in-person schools staffed by trained professionals? 

The subtext here is that Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce are slowly moving us toward something resembling the American voucher system, where parents can “choose” to take back money from the public pot, to put it where they want it. That might sound enticing on an individual level, but in practice it degrades your “choice,” because once the integrity of the public system is destroyed, you will actually have little choice left. Many will just pay a lot for private school with a pittance received back, or they will homeschool, with some expenses reimbursed. But homeschooling assumes a family can afford one non-earning parent, and that there are two parents in the picture—also a luxury.

In the U.S., where the voucher system has long existed, it’s widely understood to degrade the civil rights of students and drain funds from public schools. Why would we want to emulate a country whose education system consistently ranks lower than Canada’s? 

Money is allocated to schools on a per-pupil basis, so if and when kids opt for permanent remote learning, the school boards will have to redirect those funds elsewhere. That money would go to TVO or TFO, for example, if a student selects an independent learning course instead. The money is taken away from that classroom and that school, and allocated elsewhere. 

Keep in mind that the TVO Independent Learning Centre (ILC), which the Ford government continually boasts about as a cheaper learning option, is different than just turning on the TVO Kids channel. The provincial government overhauled TVO ILC in 2020 and says they “offer flexible, affordable online high school courses that suit your lifestyle.” It has students from 95 different countries participating in its courses, which were developed by educators and media professionals. And I’ll add bit of history: it was actually founded more than 90 years ago as a means of remote education for kids in Northern Ontario. (For 40 years it was a mobile school, in a train car towed by passing freight trains, to reach kids in isolated farming communities.)  

So, instead of making sure schools are safe and prioritizing teachers and essential workers for vaccinations, the Ford government used the pandemic as an excuse to avoid spending money on education, and now they’re attempting to make money off its new online education model instead.

We’re redirecting funds to tech companies, external content producers, and subcontracted teachers who will likely have less experience, and get paid less. Facilities will get less funding and fall into deeper disrepair, social workers and psychologists will be less in demand (nobody will know how badly they’re needed, or who needs them). There will be more cuts to staffing.

This pandemic has taught us when students switch to online, classes don’t get smaller or safer, they get collapsed and crushed together. Our government will spend less, and unsurprisingly, you and your children will get less, regardless of whether you choose in-person or online. 

There’s also the possibility that maintaining remote “synchronous” education as an option will mean that in-person classroom teachers will be required to broadcast everything over video link to the rest of their students at home, at the same time. Do you really want your child taught in-person by someone who has to face a screen as well, managing a Zoom grid of remote kids with tech questions? Trying to do both degrades the quality of instruction for everyone.

Sure, there are benefits to online learning. Students with exceptionalities (like ADHD) and some neurologically diverse students can benefit from remote learning and the focus it allows. I can see how disabled kids or kids with complex medical needs could benefit from this option, long-term. And for anxious kids, avoiding in-person school might also be seen as a bonus. I can relate, because I struggled with an anxiety disorder diagnosis in high school. But avoiding social interaction is not the solution. It was the bustle of my peers that reminded me I wasn’t alone; it was the escape of being onstage in school drama productions that got me out of my head. It was a teacher who told me he was on medication for depression and that it helped immensely, and who taught me not to be ashamed if I needed help. My heart breaks picturing all these kids alone in their bedrooms for months and months, with only their devices and social media. 

My fellow secondary teacher Brian Kennedy, who teaches Grades 9-12 English and History, describes the past pandemic year this way: “Kids who isolate in their minds are isolating more.”  

“Many of my students became ghosts,” explains my friend Lisa Gordon-Norman, a grades 6-8 teacher in Toronto. “I have no way of knowing why they aren’t showing up for school. If their parents don’t respond to inquiries, there’s nothing I can do. Just getting kids to virtual class becomes a part-time job.” 

Obviously, we will use remote learning while we have to—it’s a pandemic, kids are not yet approved for vaccination, and most teachers have only received their first shot (if that).

But when COVID-19 is over, what will be left? What do we value? Shouldn’t the school be a central part of your community and social lives? Think back to your own grade-school and high school memories.

“Most people don’t remember school because of the content,” Kennedy says. “They remember clubs, teams, trips. They remember laughing! Now there’s no laughter, no joy.” 

Teachers know that by shifting resources to remote school, we’re losing more than we’re gaining—and it’s more than just academic progress and what’s on the curriculum. You lose your community roots. You lose sports teams, school BBQs, charity drives, libraries, spring fairs, and holiday concerts. 

I yearn to head back to an actual classroom where I can hear my students’ laughter, witness friendships form, facilitate play rehearsals, and cultivate memorable learning that really only forms in community.

“Ask yourself, what is a school for?” says Gordon-Norman, a teaching veteran with 16 years of experience. “Yes, school is to teach math and reading, but it’s also to build and maintain communities.” 

“By endorsing virtual learning,” she says, “the government is saying that none of that work is essential, or even relevant. But I think we need it more than ever now.” 

Sure, some of the insights we have learned during COVID can be integrated going forward. But please don’t let these online successes—generated by enterprising, hardworking teachers with little help from the government, I might add—be used to debase the value of our public schools long-term.