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Paul W. Bennett is the director of the Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax and the author of The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools.

News that Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce is considering legislation to make remote learning a permanent part of the K-12 public school system has reignited a subterranean education debate over the intrusion of e-learning.

While that revelation was hardly earth-shaking, it aroused the usual fears of a hidden agenda at Queen’s Park. Was the announcement a way to promote and advance parent choice, or the thin edge of the wedge that could lead to the privatization of public education?

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Whatever the motivation, the bogeyman of online learning was back, just one year after the first round of controversy was cut short by COVID-19 and the abrupt emergency transition to home learning.

Mr. Lecce seized the high ground in confirming that online learning would continue after the pandemic. Keeping schools open for in-person schooling would remain the priority, but a Ministry of Education document indicated plans were afoot to ensure that, in September, 2021, parents would be given the opportunity to enroll their children in “full-time synchronous remote learning.” Online learning would be used to ensure continuity, mitigate learning loss and provide students with access to a wider range of courses.

COVID-19′s emergency measures have let the genie out of the bottle, and it will not likely ever be contained as a supplement to regular programs again. After all, in the case of Ontario, about 400,000 of the province’s two million students (20 per cent) have already experienced online learning during the 2020-21 school year. While regular in-person learning is far superior for most students, there’s a good argument to be made for expanding course offerings online.

Integrating online courses into the regular program makes good sense, too, knowing what we now do about the potential for mass disruptions affecting in-class learning time. COVID-19 may strike again, and having an implementable e-learning program will be part of all future strategic planning in public health and K-12 education.

With schools’ now-proven capacity to offer comparable virtual learning for short periods, it’s hard to justify repeated snow-day school closings or shutting down operations for a whole range of calamities, including hurricanes, floods, windstorms, boiler meltdowns or seasonal flu outbreaks.

Back in 2019, the Ontario government proposed requiring high school students to complete four online courses from Grades 9 to 12, provoking a firestorm of opposition; that plan looked radical, scary and disruptive at the time. Ontario’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board, not only publicly condemned Mr. Lecce in February, 2020, for proposing required online courses, but commissioned a survey of teachers, parents and students clearly aimed at torpedoing such a plan. Without any real experience in online learning, 81 per cent of parents and 97 per cent of secondary school teachers opposed what were labelled “mandatory e-learning courses.” Ontario eventually scaled things back to two courses being required for graduation. Three courses suggested as online offering possibilities were good ones: Grade 10 career choices, Grade 11 biology and Grade 12 data management.

But what a difference a year makes in K-12 education. We’ve learned that keeping children in school should be the highest priority because it is far superior to online substitutes, even when compared with the most engaging live-streamed lessons and videos. The core mission of schools remains the provision of academic learning, but after the pandemic turned the education system upside down, a far wider range of learning supports and mission-critical psycho-social services is now available. Missing in-person schooling for weeks on end deprives students and families of important lifelines and aggravates socioeconomic inequities.

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Integrating virtual learning into K-12 education has become the new postpandemic education imperative. “Continuity of learning” is now more than an aspirational educational catchphrase when we have the capacity to shift much more comfortably from in-person to mixed hybrid or full-time virtual learning.

Completing full courses online, much like regularly logging onto Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex platform-supported programs, will become more common and, in time, a normal expectation for students, teachers and parents everywhere. We have seen the educational future – and it includes online learning.

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