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Ontario schools will remain closed until at least May due to the coronavirus also known as COVID-19.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario students will receive report cards at the end of the academic year even as the government extended school closings until May and hinted that they could be shuttered for longer in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce introduced a new “teacher-led learning” plan that lays out student expectations. The plan sets standards for different grade levels, ranging from five hours of work a week for kindergarten to Grade 6 students, and three hours of work per course a week for students in semestered high schools.

“I think it’s important for students at home to know that the next few weeks is really a time of learning. And while school may be out until [May 4], classes are back in session and they have a role to play, to be disciplined and be focused on the material and be graded,” Mr. Lecce said.

Concern was expressed in some quarters about the expectations on educators and families to formalize schooling while children were learning at home.

The head of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said that while he supports the temporary move to address the situation, he worries about students who have different learning needs.

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“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.”

Further, parents may not be able to help their children with daily schoolwork for a number of reasons, including their own work or having multiple children at home, said Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education.

“I worry that by both setting expectations for hours of learning and requiring grades as opposed to a simple system of pass/fail, some students will be at a disadvantage,” Ms. Kidder said.

Mr. Lecce said he was encouraging teachers to be flexible and reasonable when grading students. The government formed a working group, which includes school boards and unions, to look at options for learning during the pandemic.

Earlier this month, the government directed schools to be closed for the two weeks after March break. Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that the extension is about keeping students safe.

“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."

Several provinces, including British Columbia and Alberta, have announced that schools would be closed indefinitely. On Tuesday, Manitoba became the latest province to say that it would be suspending learning for kindergarten to Grade 12 students indefinitely, but that teachers will teach remotely, assign work, conduct assessments and prepare final report cards.

The Ontario government also announced supports for post-secondary schools and students on Tuesday.

Student debt repayments will be deferred for six months, until the end of September, said Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano. There will also be an interest-free period of six months for those receiving funds through the Ontario Student Assistance Program. The federal government had already announced a similar interest-free period on the federal portion of student loans.

Ontario also announced an immediate injection of $25-million for the province’s 45 colleges and universities and its Indigenous institutes. The money is intended to defray some of the costs of the COVID-19 crisis, including deep cleaning of campuses and maintaining facilities for those students who are unable to vacate their dormitories. The funding comes without strings attached, the minister said.

“These dollars will be used by our institutions as they see fit to address concerns around COVID-19,” Mr. Romano said.

The government also announced new arrangements through eCampusOntario, a not-for-profit organization funded by the province, to provide secure online support for student examinations. Mr. Romano said the goal is to protect the integrity of the post-secondary evaluation system and to ensure that students taking exams are who they say they are.

Steven Murphy, president of Ontario Tech University and a board chair at eCampusOntario, said it’s a positive step for the government to be providing assistance to the non-profit organization and universities.

It’s difficult to estimate the costs involved with the sudden transition to online learning, he said, but they are significant. ​

“The need has never been greater. To have universities recognized for what we do is really appreciated."

Catherine Dunne, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, said students are appreciative of the support from government.

“We think it will mean significant relief for students,” Ms. Dunne said. She added that graduates will be entering an uncertain job market and many students who had counted on summer employment to fund their studies may not be able to find work.

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