Rainbow Board voices concern, opposition to provincial proposal to make remote learning a permanent option

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SUDBURY – The Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) has now formally sent a letter to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, outlining its concerns and opposition to a proposal by the province to make remote learning a permanent option.

“We have now forwarded a letter to Minister Stephen Lecce on permanent online and remote learning,” said Doreen Dewar, chair of RDSB, at a meeting on April 20. “The letter was sent to the minister on April 9, (2021), and was shared with other school boards on April 13.”  

As was previously reported, the RDSB trustees discussed the issue and voiced their concerns and opposition to the proposal at a previous board meeting, and agreed that a letter should be sent to Minister Lecce outlining their concerns. Chair Dewar wrote on behalf of RDSB, “our Ontario in-person public education system is the great equalizer. It is the level playing field that provides equal opportunity for all children and young people regardless of race, colour or creed and regardless of geography, income or capabilities.

“As partners in education, the proposal to expand student access to online and remote learning should have come to trustees through a Ministry of Education request for stakeholder consultation or broader public input. Regrettably, it did not,” wrote Ms. Dewar.

“It is, therefore, with a sense of urgency that (RDSB) held a special board meeting on March 30, 2021 to discuss the province’s proposed plan to make online and remote learning a permanent option for parents/guardians and students.”

With this concern and several others, school board trustees unanimously approved the following motion: “that (RDSB) write a letter expressing its grave concerns about the provincial government’s proposed plan for online and remote learning.” 

“Trustees, senior administrators and federation leaders are united in our belief that in-person learning, where students come together with their peers and their teachers in a traditional school setting, preferably with reduced class sizes, provides the optimum environment for children and youth to develop physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively,” continued the RDSB letter.

Chair Dewar explained, “school boards moved to remote learning for one reason only—as a means to deliver education when schools were forced to close to keep everyone safe in a pandemic situation. Even as schools reopened, parents were only given the option to choose remote learning for individual personal safety reasons, not for educational value. A pandemic response does not provide validation for a permanent option.”

“There is no evidence-based data on the impact of remote learning from a pedagogical perspective,” wrote Chair Dewar. “There is, however, significant information on the negative effects of remote learning on the overall well-being of children, young adults, their families and entire school communities.”

“The negative effects of online learning, while anecdotal, are significant and very real,” continued Chair Dewar. These effects include the loss of social connection and self-identity, an increase in isolation, concerns for mental health, stress on families, and a lack of human contact and interaction with others, “which is the fundamental fabric of the world in which we live.”

“The negative effects of remote learning are further compounded for students with special needs, those who are at risk, and students who struggle with mental health. At-risk students will be at even greater risk,” wrote Chair Dewar. She explained students with special needs require repetitive and extensive services that can only be provided in person, and many don’t have the support at home to help them participate in remote learning. 

Chair Dewar noted that there has been a marked increase in child and family services referrals for non-attendance and non-participation since remote learning became necessary.

“Students with mental health issues will feel a greater sense of loneliness and isolation,” said Chair Dewar. “Community and social support services will be more challenging to access. It is more difficult to identify if a student is struggling socially/emotionally if they are not in school. There is less opportunity to observe changes in behaviour, mood, sleep patterns, appetite and/or interactions with others. In order to support some students a strong network is required.”

It was further explained, “the many students in Rainbow schools who identify as First Nations have a treaty right to education which has not been acknowledged nor addressed in the province’s proposal. Concern has been expressed that for Indigenous learners, this plan is only going to facilitate additional traumas, inequities and disadvantages to an already disadvantaged minority population, and to a population that actually has a right to education that is based in treaty.”

“Students need in-class, lower pupil-teacher ratios to explore hobbies, talents, interests and career possibilities through opportunities provided by the in-school experience—technology shops, music, food, athletics—the courses that get students excited about learning. In order to gain a sense of belonging and worth, students need to be active participants, not mere observers,” continued Chair Dewar.

The pandemic has shown that the biggest influence on student success is the circle of care provided by school staff, “the front-line workers who invest their energy and expertise in shaping the next generation of citizens. They are the backbone of the public education system. And while they continue to demonstrate tremendous resiliency in delivering remote learning, they do so out of necessity, not by design.

“Creating a permanent path to have students attempt online remote learning, wrapped in the illusion of providing parent choice, puts the entire education system at risk,” wrote Chair Dewar. She said it is clear that staffing for remote learning will come out of existing dollars, eroding investments in face-to-face instruction.

The RDSB questioned whether the government plan is another cost-cutting initiative with a broader objective, and whether the plan will result in increased class sizes and reduced funding for school boards. “Is the broader objective to create a stand-alone structure that can be sold to the highest bidder to generate revenue for the province?

“It is disingenuous to attempt to capitalize on the pandemic to move a government agenda forward,” wrote Chair Dewar. “Making remote learning a permanent option is not only seen as the beginning of the privatization of public education, it will short change the current system and that will have long-term negative effects our on our overall recovery and economy.

“Making authentic connections is critical to student success,” continued Chair Dewar. “A strong circle of care through the student/teacher/support staff relationship is the hallmark of the in-person learning experience. Most importantly, we respectively request that we refocus on student well-being and success.

“Students need to be educated,” wrote Chair Dewar. “This is an issue worth fighting for.”