The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) is already looking ahead to September and is asking families to decide by mid-March whether their children will attend virtual or face-to-face learning in the fall — a move some say is putting parents in a "very tough position."
"The OCDSB is planning to welcome students and staff back to school in September 2021. We believe that student learning and well-being is best supported through in-person learning," the board wrote in a letter to families on Saturday. The OCDSB also acknowledged that a return to in-person learning could pose challenges and that virtual learning is "an attractive alternative" it is also planning for.
"To prepare for September 2021, we are asking all parents to confirm your child’s attendance for the entire school year for either 1) in-person learning or 2) virtual learning," the OCDSB said, requesting families to do so through a form before March 15. If the board doesn't receive a form for a child, it will assume a student is attending in-person.
"Remember, this decision will be for the entire school year. It will be difficult to transition students later unless it is a critical situation," the board wrote, noting that it had created "back-to-school resource guides" for elementary and secondary students to help families decide.
But with uncertainties about provincial education funding, the pandemic outlook and vaccines, some said this could be a tough choice for Ottawa families.
"I think it’s a little rushed," said Christine Moulaison, co-chair of the Ottawa-Carleton Assembly of School Councils.
"I know they’re trying to figure out staffing and the budget and I understand that, but at the same time when you don’t know what sort of funding is even going to be in place and you start to hold back programming for certain programs, you’re really putting parents in a very tough position and you’re making them make a huge decision with very little time to do it," said Moulaison, who has four elementary-aged children attending school at the board.
The province has not yet announced its education funding plans for the 2021-22 school year known as Grants for Student Needs. Moulaison said it's also unclear what funding will be allocated for COVID-19-related costs. The province has said it provided schools with $1.6 billion this school year to help them with COVID-19 costs, though some of that funding is from the federal government and another portion includes the ability for boards to dig into their reserve funds.
Moulaison said while some families already know if they're going to choose in-person or virtual, others are "in the middle."
"(This) may force some parents’ hands and force them to either choose the brick-and-mortar or the virtual for whatever reason, or choose virtual and not be happy with the programming that they’re going to be getting because they won’t be getting the same options as the brick-and-mortar students will be," she said.
The OCDSB outlined some of its plans including the continuation of cohorts for both elementary and secondary students. For elementary, staff would rotate between classes with an aim to limit the number of educators each class comes into contact with.
High school students will likely see quadmesters, though schools offering the International Baccalaureate Program will follow octomesters. Students will be placed into two cohorts, with one cohort attending each day.
The board said at the elementary level, virtual schools will include options for some programming like the
Early French Immersion Program, but not others such as the Middle French Immersion, which starts in Grade 4, and the Alternative Program.
"Similar to this year, we expect (virtual) classes will be larger than in-person classes and will be more likely to include multi-grade classes," the board stated.
High school students choosing the virtual route will not have access to specialized programs like the Secondary High Skills Majors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Arts Canterbury, the board said.
Students with special needs in regular classes will receive the required supports in-person or through virtual learning, the board said, but "specialized program classes" will only be offered in-person.
Moulaison said the fact that some programming won't be available with virtual learning "takes a lot of families and sorts of pins them against the wall, which is unfortunately extremely unfair."
She said she'd like to see the government put in place funding and guidance to ensure that there's equity in programming.
"The provincial government can mandate that and say you have to offer the same options and make sure it is an equitable and equal education that the kids are getting, whether it’s virtual or it’s brick-and-mortar," she said. "It’s not an easy decision for any family to make, no one wants to pull their kid out of school ... no one wants to work from home so their kids can get an education, but in their circumstance, it’s what they’ve deemed is the safest option and the best option in these times for their family and we need to try and work and support those families."
As of now, Moulaison said she plans to send her children for in-person learning in the fall.
"If for some reason we have a turn of events or we start seeing different variants that perhaps vaccines aren’t helping with, at that point I’d probably have to seriously consider keeping them home," she said.
Jessica Lyons, who has two children in elementary school at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), said she thinks "this timeline is terrible" for Ottawa families.
"I appreciate that one of the priorities in arranging, planning ahead for school boards is they want to create stability within a classroom, they want the kids to have the same teacher, they want the kids to be in the same group, so ... what they’re trying to avoid is collapsing classrooms and having to reallocate teachers and shuffle things around," said Lyons, who is also part of the Ontario Parent Action Network, an advocacy group.
"There’s another thing that would stop that from having to happen and that’s adequate funding," Lyons added. "It’s not an ample timeline to make a decision, but the real problem here is that the government won’t create the condition for parents to be able to make a much easier decision, which is to send them back to school in an environment that we can predict because we know that the government is actually addressing the pandemic properly and doing what it takes."
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said "there’s no question that’s a difficult and maybe even impossible decision for most parents to make at this point."
She said while parents are trying to be optimistic about what September will look like, there are many unanswered questions at this point and she hopes the government will "enable the boards to be as flexible as possible."
"School boards across this province have had to shift and transition through different models over and over and over again and we know that those transitions are really hard on students, on staff and on families, so I understand boards wanting to limit those things and to plan ahead for their staffing," Stiles said. "When I hear these things, I think, where is the provincial government in providing boards with the support and the assurances that they need, that the support and resources will be there in the fall to help them with the transitions?"
It seems as though the OCDSB is among the first boards to publicly share plans for September and ask families to indicate their learning model preference.
"It’s the first indication we’ve had of what next September might look like from any board that I’m aware of, but I’m not really surprised in so much as school boards have to start planning certainly now, spring at the very latest, for the next year in September," said Stiles.
The Waterloo Region District School Board said it is "in the process of developing plans for the 2021-22 school year" and would share details once they are finalized.
The Peel District School Board shared a similar response, with a spokesperson saying the board is in the planning process for "learning models with consideration to all potential continued societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic."
"We will be reaching out to families in the coming weeks and months as this planning continues to unfold," said Tiffany Gooch.
Peter Sovran, associate director of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, said the board is "currently exploring what a remote learning program might look like for students in the 2020-21 school year," and that a report would be shared with the board of trustees on April 6.
The TDSB said it hasn't yet sent anything out to families about the next school year and would be taking its lead from the Ministry of Education.
Asked about whether the government has provided any guidance to boards about how they should be planning for next year, Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said the government has been following the advice of its chief medical officer for health "to protect our students and staff, and to keep schools open, as they are critical to the mental health and development of children," and will continue to do so for the upcoming school year.
"We have provided school boards with public health guidance, financial resources and additional capacity to deliver in-class and online learning within our public schools," she said. "We will continue to follow the best advice of medical experts and collaborate with all partners to ensure student success, mental health and choice is preserved for students and their families."