As the pandemic rages on with its latest variants, leaders repeatedly scramble to flatten or blunt the curve of infection, while schools have been finding alternate ways to deliver education. The delivery of education has come in multiple forms: the traditional everyone in-class (with enhanced safety measures, perceived or otherwise), the everyone at home using on-line tools, and the hybrid model that provides a mix of in-class and remote learners at the same time. In all cases, the terms synchronous and asynchronous have been two of the most overused words during this time. While the hybrid model provides balanced support between caution and confidence, it struggles to provide equity for students. At the core of all school decisions has been the best interest of the students. The output of those decisions simply has not lived up to the capabilities.
The hybrid model isn’t a failed model. The technology for the hybrid model is not a failing technology. The policy makers, implementers, and deliverers of the model have however, forced learning inequity on students and frustration on parents. It has never been more apparent than during the Omicron period of the pandemic where school boards implemented different versions of the model that range from temporary, permanent, and non-existent as they struggle between those who want remote options and those by choice or no choice, rely on in-class learning.
The school boards in the province of Ontario provide a perfect example of inequity inside of inequity. The Dufferin-Peel school board offered temporary remote learning in all subjects. The York Catholic District school board offered temporary remote learning in 3 subjects: language, math, and religion. The Toronto District school board offered no temporary remote learning. The models differ across the province. Students living in different parts of the same province had different temporary education models that were initially meant to offer some buffer past the Omicron peak. In some cases, students within the same school board accessed different education models at their local level as well. All school boards receive their direction from the Ministry of Education and through Policy/Program Memorandum 164 for remote learning. Although an update to this memorandum was never published on-line at the time of this article, school board directors may have received a soft update that suggested, “for students accessing the short-term virtual learning opportunities above, the requirements of PPM 164 may not be able to be fully met.” In the ambiguity of this statement lays the foundation for the interpretation of “may”, and the catalyst for education inequity. School board directors seemingly parlayed that memo into whatever version best supported their local best interest, but maybe not the best interest of all students.
As I raised concerns of inequity with one school board Director and the Associate Director who is also in charge of COVID planning, our exchanges went from being dismissed through policy reference and re-direction, to conversation that explored a variety of challenges that factored into the decision-making. I can’t say that any of the decisions had the best interest of all students, while equity was knowingly being sacrificed. While this discussion was taking place, I also had a paper trail that went in circles between Minister offices, the Ministry of Education, school board leaders, and teachers as each pointed to something the other should or could be doing. Discretion at each level was a common conversation calmer and equally at each level it was something no one would commit to.
The day before temporary hybrid kicked in, some teachers had not figured out if, when, and how a student might participate in a test or presentation outside of those 3 courses. The feedback went from “you won’t be able to participate”, to “there may be an exception for you to log in just to do your test or presentation”, to “maybe you can video record yourself and send it in.” While the school board suggested schools might show flexibility and discretion, some principals and teachers were holding the line on policy. Remote students would not be allowed to listen in to class instruction and left to self-learn for 140 minutes out of a 300-minute learning day. The students sat confused and distressed as they were left with unanswered questions and worry. It remains unclear how this wouldn’t be a mental health concern, but sometimes there’s a lot of words behind a movement and not enough accountability.
In a demonstration of further disregard for remote learners, as schools re-opened with the mix of in-class and at-home students, one school board sent out a social media message welcoming back all the in-class learners and telling them, “You Got This,” while completely ignoring all the remote students. After contacting the school board Director, the school board eventually deleted and reposted their message with the inclusion of remote learners. The message, “we hope our remote students also have a great day of learning,” came across as a bit of an afterthought, probably because it was.
The pinnacle of lost logic came in the first mid-week when a teacher who was working remotely asked the at-home students to log-off while the students in-class could stay on. Given that the teacher was remote, at that point, all students were essentially on-line regardless of their physical location. A perfect example of where policy took precedence over the best interest of the students. Equity failed completely.
The proven technology has been in place for a long time now when it comes to remote learning capabilities. The challenges with communication, attention, and balance remain the factors that require maturity at school and at home. Treating the problem seems to always be harder than treating the symptoms.
There are a lot of indisputable benefits we know about in terms of mental health and social well-being of in-class learning. There are no doubts about that. There is doubt about the intention of the best interest of the students, especially remote students in this scenario. The lens that a parent wants or can apply to their child, or their situation is not the debatable point as each is free to run their household as they see fit, or within their capabilities and beliefs. It should however concern every single parent that the space to create this inequity was made and the precedence for doing the same in a future scenario has been set. That next scenario may or may not impact you or your children, but maybe it might and that is often the matrix where we look back and remember when it didn’t matter to you, but maybe it should have.
There is forced inequity of education as adults shuffle pieces of paper around, make phone calls, and debate the benefits of one model over the other as their own noise has perhaps greater value than the best interest of the students. Meanwhile the students, our children, watch and wait to see if their tomorrow brings the equity that so many believe is part of the core values in the delivery of education.
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