Local school boards are preparing for the next phase of learning at home after Premier Doug Ford said Ontario schools will remain closed until at least May 4 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ford said the continued closings have been recommended by the province’s chief medical officer of health as a way to continue to fight the spread of COVID-19.
Earlier this month, the government ordered schools closed for two weeks following March break, and had set April 6 as the date for them to reopen. But Ford has acknowledged that the closures would be extended.
Ford said on March 31 that the move is about keeping students safe.
“What we do today will determine what we face tomorrow,” the premier said. “The situation continues to change day by day, hour by hour. In order to protect our children, I’m prepared to extend these closures even further if we have to.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce introduced a new plan to re-establish what he described as “teacher-led learning.”
The plan sets standards for different grade levels, ranging from five hours of work per week for Kindergarten to Grade 6 students and 10 hours of work per week for students in Grades 7 and 8.
High school students will be required to complete three hours of work per course per week for semestered students, with 1.5 hours per course each week for non-semestered students.
Lecce said the plans will incorporate online learning, but where that is not possible, telephone calls and mail-out packages will be used.
The minister said the plan will also require final report cards for all students and prioritize keeping them on track to graduate.
“These are extraordinary times,” Lecce said. “We’re moving quickly with two aims in mind. The first, to keep your child safe, the second is to keep them engaged in learning.
Mike McDonald, director of the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board, said the board has a plan in place to guide distance learning for all its students.
“Our staff has been spending the last few weeks training and constructing their new online learning environments, addressing issues pertaining to technology, and examining the needs of all students,” said McDonald. “Teachers continue to make contact with all families.”
He said the new learning environment “will not look the same as a regular physical classroom.”
“We understand the extraordinary context we are operating in and empathize with the realities facing our families. We are working to ensure that the well-being and faith needs of staff and students are being addressed, as well as their learning needs.”
Kimberly Newhouse, communications director for the Grand Erie District School Board, said teachers began reaching out to students on March 30 to determine the tools and resources, including Internet and computers, each student has access to at home.
“Grand Erie recognizes that in many areas of the board, there is very limited access to the Internet, if any at all,” said Newhouse. “Collecting this data will help teachers develop next steps so they can design the appropriate materials for all students to be successful. This could mean using online tools, e-mailing information or other ways of distributing materials to students.”
McDonald said board administrators understand students and parents have many questions about how assessments will work, and how and when marks will be provided to colleges and universities.
“We anticipate clarification on this and many other practical issues in a memo from the Ministry of Education that we hope to receive today.”
The government has formed a working group with the province’s education sector unions to look at options for continued learning until the pandemic abates.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which represents 83,000 public school teachers, said in a statement that it supports the temporary moves made to address the situation.
But the union’s president stressed that learning is best done “face-to-face in a classroom setting.”
“We have reminded the ministry that many students have unique and specialized needs and that some have challenging circumstances affecting their ability to engage in learning outside the classroom,” Sam Hammond said in a statement.
“It is extremely important that during this temporary situation, we strive to provide equitable and inclusive opportunities for students to advance their learning.”
Newhouse said Grand Erie families will receive more detailed information in the coming days regarding next steps for student learning
In the meantime, she said, the board has a range of resources on its website for families, including literacy and numeracy guides for elementary and secondary students, a link to the Ministry of Education’s Learn at Home platform and weekly literacy, numeracy and physical education tasks for elementary students.