An Ontario school board has given families only two weeks to decide where their children will be studying six months from now, asking parents to choose between in-person and online learning this fall, despite many unknowns in the country’s pandemic response.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board told parents that they have until March 14 to choose how their children will learn in September, and that the decision would stand for the entire school year. “It will be difficult to transition students later unless it is a critical situation,” the board wrote in a letter to parents sent over the weekend.
Several school districts are wrestling with plans for the fall in the hopes of avoiding the chaos of this past year, when deadlines to switch between in-person and remote learning were extended to early September and many online learners, especially in Ontario, were not assigned classrooms or teachers for weeks.
School officials say they have not received much guidance from education ministries, but plan on again offering a choice between remote and in-person learning for next year.
“We’re taking a prudent approach. We’re making the assumption that COVID-19 will still be a reality in our communities heading into September, although we’re optimistic that vaccination programs will begin to put a real dent into it,” Brett Reynolds, associate director at the Ottawa board, said on Tuesday. “But I don’t know that there’s any indication that it will be completely resolved heading into the school year.”
Mr. Reynolds acknowledged that families might be nervous about making a decision about the next school year so early. (The city’s Catholic board set a deadline in late February for families to register for virtual school.) However, he said that the last-minute changes to classes this school year caused “a great deal of stress” for teachers and students. Further, school boards generally start planning programs and staffing around this time of year, he said.
Christine Moulaison, the co-chair of the Ottawa Carleton Assembly of School Councils, described the board’s decision as “short-sighted.”
Ms. Moulaison, who has four children attending school at the board, said the two-week deadline puts immense pressure on parents at a time when nobody knows what next month will look like, let alone five months from now.
“I understand wanting to plan early … but pushing it a month or two to see how far our vaccination is moving, how much funding the province could possibly give us and those sorts of things, it might be worth waiting.”
The board is “backing parents into a corner and making them make a decision when really no one knows what the outcome is going to be in a few months,” Ms. Moulaison added.
In Ontario, where the government gave parents a choice between virtual and in-person learning this school year, roughly 20 per cent of students are studying remotely. The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school board, announced at a recent meeting that parents would be asked in “late spring” about choosing between in-person learning and virtual school. The board is also looking at offering remote learning through a student’s home school, rather than a stand-alone virtual school, which was in place this school year.
In Edmonton, Catholic school district spokeswoman Christine Meadows said about a quarter of students are learning online. The board recently asked parents to fill out an “intention screen” by March 22, indicating whether they want to enroll their children in one of the district’s online schools or in-person instruction.
“This will allow us to prepare and plan for our budget and staffing needs. It is not an official registration,” Ms. Meadows said, adding that parents will be notified of a final decision before the start of the next school year.
Jordan Tinney, superintendent of schools for the Surrey School District in B.C., said plans for the fall were discussed at a recent meeting with area superintendents. A return to full-time school is dependent on how the spring unfolds and how quickly the vaccination is rolled out, he said.
“For Surrey, we will have a model that returns full time, yet has the ability to easily scale back should we still be in a pandemic and need to make adjustments.”
Mr. Tinney added: “We want all students back in school full time. That’s the goal and we hope that the pandemic will allow us to do that.”
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