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A student wears a mask and face shield as she waits in line for her kindergarten class to enter the school at Portage Trail Community School in Toronto on Sept. 15, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Irvin Studin is president of the Institute for 21st-Century Questions, chair of the Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic), and editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief Magazine. His forthcoming book is Canada Must Think for Itself – Ten Theses for our Country’s Survival and Success This Century.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen Canada suffer its darkest pedagogical period in modern history.

First, some 200,000 regular Canadian students, poor and rich alike, have been ousted from all forms of schooling – both physical and virtual – during the pandemic. We have come to call these children “third-bucket kids” – that is, kids who are neither in physical school (“Bucket 1”) nor in virtual school (“Bucket 2”).

Canada’s third-bucket kids are not in homeschooling or pod-schooling. They are in no school at all, forced out through lack of access to electronic devices or reliable internet during sustained school closings. Or, once schooling went online, other challenges included some children being stuck in abusive homes, those with inadequate English or French language skills being unable to keep up – and, among other very human factors, the extremely low costs of simply bowing out of virtual schooling.

Should you have to get vaccinated to go to school? To work in health care? To fly? Yes

Back-to-school anticipation has become a time of great anxiety for many families

A middle-school or high-school student for whom virtual learning, after a few months of “Zoom schooling” without classmates, extracurricular life or community, loses all purpose can simply click a button to end his or her schooling definitively. No one need necessarily be aware – and in the context of mass quarantine, it’s possible no one would be looking for that child in the day’s roll call. How can we build a happy and successful society and country as we emerge from the pandemic, with huge numbers of young people experiencing such gaps in their education?

Second, for the majority of Canada’s nearly five million children still in the country’s school systems, learning loss and destabilization during the pandemic have been severe. This is particularly true in Ontario, which includes 40 per cent of the national student body and which has seen some of the longest school closings in North America.

Third, school closings and the advent of virtual schooling as a new mass institution of the pandemic have together conspired to disorient much of Canadian society. Whereas regular in-person school often provided the rhythm of the day, calendar and seasons for many Canadians over the past century-plus, much of that system was lost as soon as we reduced (or pretended to reduce) all schooling to a screen that could be turned on and off on a dime.

School, in many cases, began to lose its meaning – its standards and spirit in particular. When education for our kids loses meaning, then little else in society can matter. A state of anomie takes hold. And so it was in Canada, where quarantined parents began to lose track of weekdays versus weekends and working hours versus leisure periods, while our children, denied the long, legato lines of youthful dreaming and collective play, were left confused and anxious about what awaits tomorrow – a tomorrow about which formal announcements were increasingly made according to the staccato cadence of social media.

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Students return to in-class learning after a four-week COVID-19 lockdown at Vincent Massey Public School in Ottawa on Feb. 1, 2021.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

What’s to be done? Here are five steps to address this catastrophe head-on.

Never close the schools again. Ever. Unless there is war.

We now know that school shutdowns destroy lives from the very moment of closing. A global commission that I chair has studied the issue carefully across Canada and some 60 countries. We have learned that the mass, improvised, near-simultaneous shuttering of schools around the world in March of last year led, over time, to the ouster of up to half a billion children (the aforementioned third-bucket kids) around the world – including 200,000 in our country, and between 15 and 20 million in the United States.

These are the same children who were in our schools, parks, malls, rinks and gyms but a year and a half ago. They were pushed out of those spaces for reasons of systems collapse by (typically) well-intentioned decision-makers who did not understand the complex systems they were shutting down.

The world’s half-billion third-bucket children also point to one of the pandemic’s key lessons: Thou shalt never again close schools, barring total catastrophe. The Ontario Science Table itself recently confirmed this learning explicitly – now it must be generalized, in a felt way, across the scientific and political communities in all provinces and territories. Schools must be kept open at all costs – and those who close or threaten to close them, or otherwise celebrate or glorify their closing, must be made to understand the devastating human costs of their intellectual flippancy. (Starting this fall, I will deem any decision by political leaders or medical officers to close schools or destabilize schooling to be properly in the realm of serious policy crimes, given the existential stakes for thousands of children.)

Find and reintegrate Canada’s third-bucket kids ASAP.

We must absolutely find our third-bucket kids and reintegrate them into schooling as soon as possible – ideally by this fall.

We have a moral duty to ensure that these young people are prepared for a difficult tomorrow. For those exercised by considerations of justice and inequality, the gap in life prospects and outcomes between the educated and the suddenly uneducated must be understood as the least forgiving. To address it, we must treat the search and reintegration campaign for our third-bucket kids as a national, on-the-ground mission – door-to-door, where necessary, with failure not an option.

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A father adjusts a mask for his son as he drops him off for school at the Calgary French and International School on Sept. 14, 2020.Dave Chidley

The coming school year must be energetic, full-on and without theatre.

We must ace the return to school across the country. For the sake of both the third-bucket kids and the huge numbers of Canadian students who have fallen behind in their studies, intellectual and social growth, the coming school year must restore the routine, standards, fun, play, friendship and ambition of Canadian schooling, at primary and secondary levels alike.

And no more zombie language about schooling and education. Our kids are not in school to be “safe” or to “live another day” – they are there to dream big, work hard and learn well, and prepare for a difficult but brighter tomorrow.

Masks, physical distancing and all of the more theatrical elements of the COVID era should be excised from schooling with maximum speed this fall. This is already happening in most provinces and territories, but the return to “normal” must be full-on and choreographed for effect – for nothing short of high-energy schooling will help dislodge the third-bucket kids from their position, and any continued zombification of schools will confuse those students and educators alike who are intent on catching up on lost learning in the coming academic year.

No more playing defence. Pivot to offence – and excellence in education.

If the pandemic portends a very difficult and complex tomorrow for Canada and the world, then there can only be one correct, corresponding posture today for Canada when it comes to education – excellence. We must double down on quality because “average” or “normal” – or, yes, “safe” – is plainly not good enough. Beyond the feel-good tweet or fleeting political mania, we must always think long-term. While we have allowed our once-admired education systems to disintegrate over the past year and a half, other smart countries have continued to educate their children, often redoubling efforts around standards precisely because they have seen our pedagogical collapse.

Those countries know that tomorrow belongs to the best-educated societies. And their kids will soon meet ours in the arena of postpandemic life – in business, science, politics, medicine and beyond – and they will expect to win. Let us have the same expectation, and invest the huge thinking, work and resources required to make that hope credible.

Let Canada lead in designing the 21st-century classroom.

So what does educational excellence mean in the 21st century as we emerge from a pandemic? No one and no single country yet knows. We know what it is not, however – it is not learning exclusively online for years on end. It is not “synchronous” or “hybrid” learning. These are all failed improvisations of the pandemic period.

Let us fix our mistakes head-on, and then undertake to lead the world in designing the framework for world-class learning and world-beating educational results for the coming decades – for the sake of our children, our country and humanity more generally.

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