People for Education has concrete recommendations for actions while schools are closed
“Staff are exhausted…My students deserve better…COVID has greatly impacted our school.”
“The role has turned into a dumping ground, and we are expected to just take it all and keep working,” says an Ontario school principal describing how their job has dramatically changed since the beginning of the pandemic.
Since March 2020, COVID-19 has caused upheaval in education, with schools, students, and families constantly having to pivot between closures, virtual/hybrid/in-person learning, and an onslaught of health and safety protocols. On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that all schools will move to remote learning starting January 5 until at least January 17. This decision comes 3 days after Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore said the return-to-school date would be pushed 2 days from January 3 to January 5.
Principals raise red flags
Responses from People for Education’s Annual Ontario School Survey 2021-22 are revealing just how difficult these continuous changes have been on all fronts: for students, educators, administrators, and families. Principals report an overwhelming increase in demand for mental health supports — with no additional resources available to respond to these needs — and those who are veterans in education say they have never experienced such negative impacts by the education system on school staff and families in the entirety of their careers.
“This has taken toll on the staff who have worked well beyond their regular responsibilities as educators to try to help in these capacities. There is a toll that is beyond professional and that transcends emotional. It has been hard.”
Educators “taking the hits” from government and parents
The rapid pace of change and the lack of time for preparation is taking a toll on school and board staff. Similarly, with little notice, parents are trying to balance the learning needs of their children and their family’s need for employment. Principals are quick to commend teachers, many of whom are going above and beyond to ensure that student learning continues in face of these obstacles, but add that there is concern for teacher well-being, as they often “take the hit from the Government end of things not being considered as important at times and then again from the parents and the greater community when things are not going well”.
Information about changes to education delivery and safety protocols is often delivered to schools and boards at the same time it is released to the public. As a result, principals say that responding to pushback and frustration from parents has been particularly challenging during what is already a difficult time.
The pandemic continues to exacerbate inequities between families of different socioeconomic statuses. Schools in low-income areas are struggling to secure basic needs for their community such as food and warm clothing, and access to access to appropriate technology and tech supports continues to pose challenges, almost 2 years after the start of the pandemic. These inequities will be further exacerbated by new school closings.
People for Education recommends a set of S.M.A.R.T. goals for government
At a press conference on Monday, January 3, the Premier and other members of government could not provide details as to any plans to ensure schools will be ready to re-open for in-person learning on January 17.
To help focus the province’s work over the next 2 weeks, People for Education recommends the province develop and implement a set of SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) goals, including:
- Resume COVID-related data collectionin schools and child care centres, and provide regular reports to the public.
- Add COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of vaccines mandatory for school attendance.
- Provide sufficient N95 masks to school boards and child care centres by January 14 so that they are available for all students and staff at no cost.
- Conduct an audit of classroom HEPA air filtration units, publicly report on results, and provide sufficient units for every classroom.
- By January 10, establish and promote vaccination centres in schools and/or child care centres to give education staff priority access to boosters, and to encourage families to vaccinate 5- to 11-year-olds. Establish a vaccination rate goal significantly higher than the current 43% of 5- to 11-year-olds and report regularly on progress.
- Acquire sufficient Rapid Antigen Tests and deliver them to school boards and child care centres by January 14, so that students, staff, and families can test regularly and at no cost. Re-instate schools’ access to PCR tests.
- Provide school boards with the remainder of the funding promised in a May 2021 letter to Board Chairs and Directors of Education to fund teachers, early childhood educators, educational assistants, custodians, school-based administrative support, principals, and vice-principals to facilitate smaller cohorts, physical distancing, and the delivery of remote learning.
- Convene a COVID Education Advisory Task Force with representatives from health and education to provide advice, input, and expertise on next steps for Ontario’s students, educators, and school boards.
If implemented, these goals will provide greater certainty for school and school board staff, students, and families. They will also help to ensure that when schools re-open, that they can stay open.