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‘Same money, same message’: Provincial announcement of online learning option leaves local teachers unions frustrated

Mixed messaging and potential for disruption leaves local OECTA, ETFO presidents waiting for more
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File photo/The Canadian Press

Tuesday saw the announcement of a significant flow of funding from the provincial government, as well as the news that Ontario’s school boards will now be offering online learning as a full year option for the entire 2021-2022 school year. That funding from the Ford Government marked an increase of 2.2 per cent in our education system over the previous year, as well as the extension of $1.6 billion in COVID-19 supports to school boards for upgrading ventilation, support learning recovery and flexible staffing and an increase of $561 million next year to address pandemic costs.

Locally, those numbers add up to an increase of $10.4 million dollars for the Waterloo Region District School Board, and around $15.6 million for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board. While the funding may seem substantial, President of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association here in Waterloo Region, Patrick Etmanski, said he’s not certain the latest announcement really changes anything for the upcoming school year. With the option for virtual learning now made a choice for parents, Etmanski said the announcement takes the responsibility from the government, placing it instead on families and school boards – a move which could trickle down to a “nightmare of patchwork decisions”.

“I have absolutely no confidence in that funding – this is the same statement that’s been made for months – for more than a year,” said Etmanski. “None of it has come true (…) I think it’s just more smoke and mirrors from the Ministry of Education.”

While school boards have been instructed to not require a decision from parents on in-person or remote learning before June 1 at the earliest, the catholic board already completed a survey of parents in March, while the public board conducted their own remote learning survey on May 3rd. While parents still have time to make the decision, Etmanski said the catholic board is aiming to begin putting things in place to get an understanding of staffing levels for September.

“It’s much like a school opening – we need to know who’s going to be in that school come September, so the board knows how many staff to hire: whether it be teachers, E-As, principles and things like that. It’s not too early, in fact it’s been a bit delayed… and it’s time to get this done.”

With regards to how these two streams of learning will be delivered, Etmanski said teachers – not the union, were surveyed earlier in the year as to whether they could handle teaching both in-person and virtually simultaneously – a move that was strongly opposed by staff. Etmanski said that sort of delivery would not be ideal, adding that the union has spoken against that sort of format since the beginning of the pandemic.

That same concern was expressed by Greg Weiler, the President of the local branch of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, who said he’s still not sure exactly how the separated streams will look when it comes to the classroom. Weiler said he’s concerned with the implications should students attempt to switch back from online learning to the in-person environment as the pandemic begins to become more subdued, adding that having multiple options can lead to “system wide disruption”.

“This year, particularly, when parents were able to switch – that caused a lot of difficulty and chaos as well,” said Weiler. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Friday, we have X number of classes with these teachers, and Monday it can all change.’ It’s just not possible to do that anywhere close to that quickly, and without giving people time to prepare.”

Weiler added that he’s already begun to hear concerns from parents in the board, particularly with regards to the availability of French immersion. With those programs dependent on having the teachers available to deliver them, Weiler said having those teachers moved online only to not have high enough demand may leave them stuck there with what students they have, leaving them unavailable for the same programs in school.

“Trying to run both an in-person and distanced learning system simultaneously, particularly when they're not particularly funded, is not good for anybody.”

With regards to funding, Weiler said he’s patiently waiting for more information, as the Province’s announcement was the first time the government had communicated that there’d be any continuation of funding in a considerable amount of time. According to Weiler, school boards received a memo less than a month ago informing them of the opposite; that none of the enhanced funding for the year due to COVID-19 would continue, and that they’d have to plan accordingly.

“We’re a bit frustrated with what we see as mixed messaging from the ministry on this,” said Weiler. “If schools really are safe, really, it should be a small percentage of students that need remote learning because they have personal medical situations – either themselves or in their family.”

“We’re definitely hearing from all members, educators, parents and students that in-person is where they want to be, and what’s best… so, I’m really not understanding the push and ongoing need for virtual learning.”

Meanwhile, Patrick Etmanski accused the Minister of Education of “doing what he does best” in changing the messaging of the Ministry of Education, arguing that Stephen Lecce has advocated for months that the best place for kids to be is in the classroom – only to make an option for kids to stay home.

“I just don’t understand it. We need to make sure the schools are safe, get the schools open and get those kids back in the classroom – that’s the best option.” said Etmanski. “Really, we’ll stick to that messaging. We want those kids back in the school. We want them back in the classrooms. That’s the best place to do learning, and that’s what we hope for in the end.”

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