Schools in Ontario will stay shut for at least another month amid the COVID-19 pandemic and Premier Doug Ford says he'll be willing to extend the closures beyond early May if needed.
Meanwhile, students won't be off the hook from schoolwork, with the new phase of Education Minister Stephen Lecce's "Learn at Home" plan including grades, report cards and a set number of hours students are expected to study each week.
Public schools across the province will be closed until May 1 for teachers and May 4 for students, Ford announced on Tuesday. Private schools and child-care centres will be closed for another two weeks under the province's extended emergency declaration.
"The situation continues to change day-by-day, hour-by-hour and in order to protect our children, I’m prepared to extend these closures even further if we have to," Premier Ford said during an afternoon press conference.
On Tuesday, neighbouring Manitoba announced that schools would be closed indefinitely, but the Ontario government was hesitant to follow suit.
"If we can protect some of the school year, should it be safe, then our instinct is to do so," Lecce said. "If we can salvage part of the year for in-school instruction, of course following the advice of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, then we will."
Lecce said continued learning for students over the next month would be "teacher-led," compared to the past week during which the responsibility was largely on parents to guide their children through online resources. Lecce unveiled a website on March 20 with online learning tools, including those from TVO, for students in kindergarten to Grade 12. At the time, schools were set to be closed until April 6, but it became apparent last week that families would be facing additional closures with the number of COVID-19 cases rising in the province and the premier saying during a press conference that it was "not realistic" schools would open again so soon.
"We’re laying out a new set of expectations that parents and students can count on, including...reconnecting students with teachers and other school staff including mental health workers," Lecce said.
"We’re requiring final report cards for all students from kindergarten to grade 12, meaning this material will be graded by your teacher with the appropriate flexibility built in as we respond to this unprecedented challenge," Lecce said, adding that students, especially high school students, will be able to complete the credits they are working on. His message to Grade 12 students was "we will do whatever it takes to ensure you graduate, full-stop."
Lecce justified his direction to educators to continue issuing grades by saying that the next few weeks are a "time of learning," though he noted that the government has encouraged educators to be flexible and reasonable given the unusual circumstances.
"While school may be out until the (May 4), classes are back in session and (students) have a role to play to be disciplined and be focused on the materials and be graded," Lecce said. "We want to make sure kids take this process seriously."
Students will be expected to put in the following number of hours for schoolwork:
- Kindergarten-Grade 3: five hours per week (the focus will be on literacy and math)
- Grades 4-6: five hours per week (the focus will be on literacy, math, science and social studies)
- Grades 7-8: 10 hours per week (the focus will be on math, literacy, science and social studies)
- Grades 9-12: three hours per course per week for semestered students; 1.5 hours per course per week for non-semestered students (the focus will be on completing credits and graduation)
Educators will have access to a training program to help them with virtual teaching, said Lecce, who added that they're working with school boards to provide students who don't have access to technological devices with laptops or other devices.
"At the ministry level we’re working with telecommunication partners...to leverage the ingenuity and support to get technology to those that need it," he said, later adding that the government is "open to every idea," including asking bus drivers to "drive materials in a safe manner to a student's home that does not have access to broadband or just cannot get it in a remote part of the province."
"We're leveraging digital resources, we’re embracing all forms of student-teacher connectivity based on the students’ access to technology, meaning one way or another by printed materials or tablet, every child should and will be able to continue learning through the curriculum supported by their teacher," he said.
The minister acknowledged the challenges for families of children with special needs and said the sector is working to have educational assistants and other staff available to support these families.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he was particularly concerned about children with special needs, English as a Second Language students and those from low-income households.
"It is unavoidable that many students will struggle under these new conditions, and the government must use education funds to address equity issues," Schreiner said in a statement. "We must ensure this temporary solution does not worsen the divide between privileged and vulnerable students."
He called on school boards to maintain contact with these families.
The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) — the union representing French-language teachers — said it was important for all players in the sector to be working together. AEFO, other unions and ministry officials have created a new working group to explore issues related to the continuity of learning.
AEFO President Rémi Sabourin acknowledged that distance learning isn't a perfect solution. He noted that some Franco-Ontarian families and educators "face a wide array of challenges: access to technological tools and the internet or lack thereof; family environment; special needs students."
"The framework of distance learning will evolve as the situation unfolds. This is a temporary solution. We are well aware that there is no substitute for the direct contact between teacher and students," Sabourin said.
A few hours after the press conference, the government announced it had reached a tentative deal with AEFO. This marks the third deal the province has reached with teachers’ unions since March 12, the others being with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, told QP Briefing last week that the mediator hadn’t yet called his union back to the table.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said staff from school boards, the ministry and labour unions have been working together to put a plan in place for students.
"I am pleased to report that the tone of these conversations has been positive and collaborative – we all want what’s best for our students," Abraham said, adding that boards have working to "reconnect teachers and other school staff with students from kindergarten to Grade 12."
Meanwhile, the government also reannounced its plan to put an interest-free hold on Ontario Student Assistance Program payments, meaning students don't have to make loan payments until Sept. 30. For those who do want to pay back some of the loan, the payment will go entirely towards their loan principal.
We know that financial stress may be piling up for many Ontarians. If you have outstanding OSAP loan payments, they have been frozen until September 30, 2020 with no interest. For now, do your part and stay apart. pic.twitter.com/ULlvJqnSIb
— Doug Ford (@fordnation) March 31, 2020
Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano said the government had reached an agreement with eCampus Ontario — a government-funded not-for-profit dubbed as a "centre of excellence in online and technology-enabled learning" for the post-secondary sector — to provide universities and colleges with technology to hold online exams. The government said it would also work with Indigenous Institutes and private collages to provide these resources as needed.
"We wanted to ensure, as every situation will arise, when a student takes an exam that they are in fact the student who they say they are, that they are not cheating or engaging in other nefarious type of conduct," Romano said. "We want to ensure that the proctoring of examinations can guarantee integrity of the degrees that the institutions are conferring and equally important is ensuring the privacy interests of the students taking those examinations."
He said this service through eCampus Ontario would allow institutions to do this and that colleges or universities would have been on the hook for $30-$50, per student, per hour and per exam if they had sought this out on their own.
Various stakeholders in the post-secondary sector applauded the government's promise to provide universities, colleges and Indigenous Institutes with $25 million in funding for things like cleaning, buying medical supplies, providing mental health services or other expenses related to COVID-19.
"This is a tremendous investment in the measures to help students complete their college education," Linda Franklin, president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, said in a statement. "It reinforces our efforts to continue delivering quality programs during this global epidemic."
Photo Credit: Nick Kozak/Toronto Star