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Morse Street Junior Public School in Toronto on Feb. 16, 2021.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is considering legislation that would make remote learning a permanent part of the public-school system, according to a confidential ministry document.

The document from the Ministry of Education, obtained by The Globe and Mail, was shared in a meeting earlier this week with various education groups, including trustees, school administrators and teachers’ unions. It was marked confidential and for consultation purposes.

“If introduced and passed, beginning in September, 2021, parents would continue to have the ability to enroll their child in full-time synchronous remote learning if they choose going forward,” the document stated. “School boards would also be required to provide students with remote learning on snow days and in the event of an emergency that results in a school closure.”

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‘Short-sighted’: Anger as Ontario school board set two-week deadline for classroom decision

Teachers with young children worry how they’ll pull off remote schooling

Ontario’s back-to-school plan this academic year after the first COVID-19 lockdown last spring offered families a choice between remote learning and in-class instruction. Roughly 300,000 elementary students and 100,000 secondary students enrolled in remote learning this academic year, representing 20 per cent of the overall student population. Critics have charged that the option to extend virtual learning beyond the pandemic will disrupt the province’s public-education system, and open the door to privatization.

At least two boards – Ottawa’s public and Catholic school boards – have already asked families to choose between in-person and virtual learning for the fall, despite many unknowns in the country’s pandemic response. Others have been waiting for guidance from the Ministry of Education.

The ministry document stated that school boards could choose to operate separate virtual schools, but there would be no additional administrative funding from the government.

“If implemented,” the document stated, “this change will help ensure students have continuous access to public education, even when they cannot attend a physical school.”

Asked about possible legislation around remote learning, Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said that Wednesday’s budget provided investments for online learning and broadband funding. The government said it was investing $40-million over two years to improve remote learning technology. The money would be used to improve connectivity in school buildings and allow students and teachers to participate in remote learning “in response to COVID-19, and for the future,” the budget read.

“Online learning has been absolutely critical in ensuring students’ continuity of learning throughout the pandemic and in mitigating learning loss,” Ms. Clark said in a statement. We continue to consult and engage with stakeholders on maintaining this choice for parents and ensuring its availability this September.”

The ministry document stated that the province is considering a policy in which high-school students would have “guaranteed access” to their choice of any course on a “standardized list of online courses.” The change would begin in time for course selections for the 2022-23 school year.

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High-school students would have the option to enroll in a teacher-supported online course or an independent learning course offered through a centre operated by TVO for English-language students and TFO for French-language students. School boards would be required to transfer a fee to TVO or TFO, the document stated.

Further, TVO and TFO would put forward “a global development strategy” to market online courses and generate revenue, the document stated. TVO and TFO would be able to enroll out-of-province students in online courses; school boards would not be able to do so, according to the document.

The ministry would also consider proposing regulatory changes that would require teacher education programs to cover how to teach in an online environment, the document said.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said on Wednesday that he hadn’t seen the document but was briefed on it by staff.

He said he was concerned that the government was rushing to offer virtual learning as a permanent option without any evidence on how it has worked for families. He also worried about the privatization of the education system.

“Along with a variety of concerns, which include pedagogical concerns, social-emotional development concerns, I worry that they are building an infrastructure that they could easily then sell off to the highest bidder in order to privatize a chunk of Ontario’s public-education system.”

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