The Progressive Conservative government rolled out online learning tools on Friday for Ontario students faced with at least two weeks of school closures due to COVID-19. Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce also acknowledged that schools could stay closed longer, saying the government has a plan in case that happens.
"Ontario parents understand why schools and daycares are closed, to keep our kids safe and healthy and to slow the spread of COVID-19, but I also know from speaking with parents that they are concerned about ensuring their child can continue to learn at home," said Ford on Friday afternoon at Queen's Park while announcing the launch of the new website dubbed "Learn at Home."
"We know a child’s education is essential to their development, we are supporting families through this situation to make sure our kids can continue to learn," he said, adding in a follow-up statement that the new site "doesn't replace school, but offers a great alternative."
Lecce said he realizes many "feel anxious about the road ahead," but that the government's priority is people's safety. He said the new online tools would "help mitigate learning loss, provide interactive, teacher-led math supports and empower all students to learn the key skills with an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education."
The website includes English and French resources developed by Ontario educators for students from kindergarten to Grade 12. A range of TVO products is also listed including videos and games tied to the curriculum, YouTube channels aimed at STEM and literacy learning, and free online math tutoring. The education ministry said it's also working with TVO and French-language broadcaster TFO to "roll out robust education programming on their broadcast channels, with a phased-in approach commencing next week."
"TVO's suite of digital learning products are designed to engage young minds in learning — a mission that seems doubly important at times like this when many of our traditional learning environments are not accessible," TVO's Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Hinshelwood said in a statement.
Lecce said the high school content is focused on STEM courses "to ensure core competencies and skills are reinforced over this two-week period."
"It is times like these where digital learning tools demonstrate the greatest value," said Lecce, whose government has received flak for its plan to require high school students to take two online courses — although the minister recently said he'd offer the option of an opt-out.
The minister said that for students who don't have access to a computer, "work is underway in real time in conjunction with our school boards to ensure the necessary technology is provided to everyone who needs it." Lecce's office later clarified that this is being explored in the event that schools remain closed beyond April 5, and that "it would be at the boards’ discretion for the plan for the two-week closure" in terms of students without computers and providing them with learning materials.
Lecce did give a shoutout in his remarks to teachers across the province, some of whom he said have provided reading materials and coursework to students.
He noted that the government's decision to close schools for two weeks after March Break was made at the advice of Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams to "protect our kids, our staff and our families."
If Williams were to recommend closing schools beyond April 5, Lecce said the government would unveil a second phase of "Learning at Home" that would "incorporate a greater emphasis on online learning."
"We have a plan for the interim period for the next two weeks and we will have a plan should Ontario's chief medical health officer expand that order for an additional two weeks or for the entire remainder of the semester," Lecce said. "We have a plan to scale up learning, to help inspire young people to learn at home."
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said his union was not consulted on the resources being provided, but that he hopes families will find them useful.
"Once I again I urge the minister, as plans are being made to mitigate this crisis, to consult with the education unions whose members bring expertise, care, and commitment to our students every day," Bischof said.
Lecce suggested that he planned to do this, saying ministry officials are consulting with education stakeholders on boosting the online resources available and that he looks forward to "engaging with a variety of partners including the unions over the coming days to see how we could better involve educators as part of the solution."
"I know many of them want to be part of the solution to learning during this period of unprecedented instability," Lecce said.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles encouraged the government to do this and "work in close partnership with its education partners, including parents, teachers, school boards and education unions, to develop and implement these solutions."
She said she met with Lecce earlier this week, offering support for using technology to help with learning during this time "while ensuring equitable access to these tools."
Lecce didn't provide a timeline for when families would find out if schools will stay closed longer than the two weeks and stressed that Williams would advise the cabinet on this.
"If he asks us to extend that, we will do so without reservation," Lecce said.
Ford also didn't rule out longer school closures, saying "everything is on the table" and that his government would be prepared for "pretty well everything."
"Our number one priority is to ensure our kids are safe and they stay healthy, because if kids get it they can pass it to their grandparents and parents and again we want to make sure we slow the spread," he said.
The launch of the learning resources website comes after Lecce announced on Wednesday that he was cancelling all remaining standardized testing for students this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There had been some calls prior to the country-wide spread of COVID-19 that upcoming assessments, like the Grade 10 literacy test that was scheduled for March 31, be cancelled due to strike action from education unions in recent months.
While the scheduled assessments of Grade 10 literacy, Grade 9 math and Grades 3 and 6 reading, writing and math are all cancelled, the government has not yet said whether it will also cancel the math proficiency test that was promised sometime this spring for teaching candidates.
The Grade 10 literacy test is needed for students to graduate from high school, but Lecce has waived this requirement.
"We do not want to see impediments for graduation nor do we want to further frustrate students who are, I think, dealing with a very anxious circumstance in their lives," said Lecce, adding that he's working with Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano to ensure college and university applications don't get delayed.
Stiles said many, particularly Grade 12 students, are seeking more clarity about "how the school year will be completed and how final grades will be assessed if students can’t return to classrooms in the coming weeks."
"We urge the government to provide that clarity to students, parents, teachers, education workers and school boards, and offer our help to get that plan finalized and effectively communicated," she said.
Photo Credit: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star