Province extends public school closures to May

Ken Kellar

It might have been easy to see coming, but it doesn’t make the news any easier to swallow.

During his daily press conference at Queen’s Park this afternoon, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that students in the province would not be returning to school any earlier than May 4 due to the continuing efforts to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19.

“Nearly two weeks ago, on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, we were the first province in Canada to close schools,” Premier Ford said.

“Our medical experts are telling us that the next two weeks will be absolutely critical for Ontario. What we do today will determine what we face tomorrow. That’s why we extended the declaration of emergency for another two weeks. Effective mmediately, we have extended the order to close publicly funded schools until at least May 1 for teachers and May 4 for students.”

When the school closure order was initially announced in the province, the premier set the return to school date as April 6 for students. In light of the deepening health crisis in Canada and Ontario in regards to COVID-19, the Premier said, that order needed to be extended.

“The decision to extend school closures was not made lightly,” Premier Ford said.

“We know from the medical experts that the next two weeks will be critical in the fight against COVID-19 and that’s why we’re taking further action to keep our kids safe and healthy by having them stay home. At the same time, we cannot put the school year in jeopardy.

“That’s why we’re providing additional tools for at-home learning and ensuring students from kindergarten to Grade 12 to postsecondary education can finish their academic year and get the credits they need to graduate.”

To complement the closure extension, Premier Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that the province’s ‘Learn at Home’ program would be entering Phase 2 and would feature a new set of expectations for education communities in the province which includes reconnecting students with teachers and school staff, leveraging digital resources or identifying alternative forms of student-teacher connectivity and developing a training program for educators to support them in virtual learning delivery, among others. Also, Phase 2 will re-establish teacher led learning by assigning a set number of hours of work per week, varying with grade level, from as little as three hours a week for semestered students in Grades 9 -12 to 10 hours of work per week for students in Grades 7 and 8.

“We will do whatever it takes to keep students safe from COVID-19 – which is why we have extended the school closure period and why we have unveiled a teacher-led program that keeps students learning while at home,” Minister Lecce said.

“By providing clarity for parents, enhancing support for students and enabling the teacher-student relationship, we are ensuring our children continue to safely learn – providing some sense of stability and hope for them amid this difficulty.”

While the news was only broken yesterday, staff and educators at both local school boards had been anticipating some kind of announcement surrounding distance learning since last week.

Speaking to the Times on Friday, Brad Oster, Assistant to the Superintendent of Education for the Northwest Catholic District School Board (NWCDSB) said that their board was already committed to figuring out how to continue providing education to its students as they faced an uncertain timeframe regarding how long they would be unable to sit in a physical classroom.

“We’ve got things rolling right now to ensure that our students and families are provided with the necessary things for their kids to learn,” Oster said.

“It’s uncharted waters. Things that would take a year or even two years to develop, we’re looking at having to do this fairly quickly. It’s not going to be a simple, easy thing as we move forward, but we’ve got a lot of great people in our school board with a lot of educational experience.”

In addition to the Ministry’s Learn at Home initiative, Oster said the board currently works with a few different programs, including Google Classroom, in order to provide some connectivity between teacher and student, but the process of finding and using new programs is complicated by security and privacy needs.

“There is a lot of stuff around privacy that we have to be very very cautious of,” Oster explained.

“You’ve got all these companies out there that want your business. There’s a lot of free stuff out there. We cannot use those free versions. We as a board need to look at what specific things are we going to buy to ensure the privacy and data that these companies gather is housed safely. But Google is something that we purchased, so many teachers are using the platform.”

While the government has announced that it will have a dedicated training program for educators, the NWCDSB already has a staff member who will be working with teachers who might not be as comfortable or familiar with teaching using online programs.

In an email to the Times in reponse to several of the same questions, dated Friday, March 27, the Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) also noted that they were supplementing the government’s Learn at Home program with additional educational content.

“Our administration has been meeting virtually with principals and schools have been holding virtual staff meetings to develop a learning continuity plan should school closures last longer than expected,” the email read.

“In addition, the Rainy River District School Board has worked with our partners, such as Connected North and author Sigmund Brouwer, to provide a series of virtual field trips and online learning sessions for students, which are available via links on the Board website and Facebook page.”

Both the NWCDSB and RRDSB also noted that they are making efforts to provide students who might not have access to technology or internet at home with some additional or alternative way to access content and education.

“Our first step is really finding out who those individual families are to know what access they have to the online,” Oster said.

“And then for those families that don’t, what are we going to do to support them? And that’s a whole thing that, potentially, we’re gonna have to move forward with if we get to that point with the health units too, to say, ‘Hey, how do we get into our buildings there that are pretty much locked down right now?'”

“In the past few days, teachers have been contacting families to determine each student’s access to technology and to Internet,” read the RRDSB’s email.

“We are exploring the different ways to support teaching and learning with students who do not have the same access and classroom supports that they did when schools were opened. Our goal is to assist staff and students in working and learning from home the best we can while schools are closed.