School year and summer camps cancelled but more workplaces are opening, creating confusion for parents
Normally school offers the ultimate rhythm and certainty.
The academic term is generally finalized well in advance and lays out exactly where pupils are expected to be and when. Every weekday, youngsters in Brampton and Mississauga rise at the same time, grab a lunchbox and head off to school.
Exam timetables, after school clubs, sports and parent-teacher meetings are just a few of the routines the entire developmental package is built around. For many families, school offers the strictest and most predictable foundation in their otherwise unpredictable lives.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has pledged to expand summer educational opportunities for older students
But, thanks to COVID-19, that certainty has gone.
In its place, since the province entered a state of emergency on March 17, confusion has reigned. Spring Break was originally extended, before teaching moved online. More details were sent out about how the province expected teachers to work using video links and other “synchronous” methods, while a reopening date was agonizingly pushed further back.
At a daily press conference on Tuesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce finally announced what seemed inevitable and confirmed schools will remain shuttered until September, at the earliest.
The decision is creating turmoil for thousands of parents whose own workplaces begin to reopen. What will they do with young children locked out of school and without city-run summer camps?
During the same press conference, the province announced an expanded summer school program to help students makeup for lost learning. Popular weekly residential summer camps hosted in public schools were also cancelled while the possibility of day-camp programs were given a conditional greenlight for July and August.
The students expected to take part in the additional summer-school offering will range from Grade 8 to Grade 12.
"We will never waver from our commitment to keep your child safe, while learning at home," Lecce said. "Our plan will ensure students receive the best educational experience, both inside and outside the classroom, during this difficult time. That is why we are strengthening summer learning opportunities, reopening summer day camps, and it is why we will continue to make the case for synchronous, live, and dynamic learning."
While schools will not return until September (unless public health authorities advise against a post-Labour Day opening, depending on conditions at the time) classrooms could well have students in them before then.
The province is planning to ramp up its summer teaching program in order to allow students to make up for credits they may have missed or even get ahead of the upcoming school year. This will include an optional in-person element and online courses.
A media release from Queen’s Park explained that summer learning options will be expanded to reach the “most students in Ontario history” and keep them on track for the 2020-21 school year.
According to Lecce, the plan is to “more than double” access to the program. Summer schools take place annually as an option for students, but the province’s focus this year suggests that will take a more prominent and mainstream role than before. Traditionally, teachers can sign up to instruct students and receive additional compensation for their work during the holidays.
On paper, the plan offers some hope to parents and students that their academic work can continue. The cancellation of regular teaching until at least September also finally provides clarity on the school year.
However, away from the initial announcement and press release, key stakeholders are yet to get their teeth into the details. Peel District School Board (PDSB), which will administer the proposed summer program for many students in Mississauga and Brampton, told The Pointer it had received no details beyond the press conference. The board said a memo would follow from the province and plans would be formed in the coming weeks.
Current schools offering summer school programs in Peel. This list is expected to grow following the provincial announcement.
Prior to the announcement, PDSB planned to offer its summer school from 12 locations in Brampton and Mississauga between July 2 and July 29. The province’s announcement will likely expand the number of participating schools and the length of the program.
Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, which also administers summer learning in Peel, posted a note on its website saying more details will be forthcoming next month. “We do not yet know if classes will be in person, online or a combination of both. This decision will most likely be made later in June. In the meantime, we suggest registering for Secondary Summer School as soon as possible,” the notice reads.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), whose staff will administer the program, was also taken by surprise.
“There has been absolutely zero consultation with the unions about the announcement that was made,” Harvey Bischof, President of OSSTF, told The Pointer. “We heard inklings of some such program being announced, we asked questions of the ministry, about what that program would be and you know as much as I do based on the minister’s press conference.”
Bischof called the lack of consultation “deeply concerning” and said that dialogue with the union would allow the ministry to foresee avoidable errors it may make.
“They need to sit down and consult with us, they need to lay out what their program is intended to be, we need to have an opportunity to provide input,” he added. “Here’s the thing, if they proceed without us, they’ll make missteps and have false starts — that’s not productive for students themselves. If they proceed through consultation with us, we can avoid a lot of the avoidable problems.”
At Queen’s Park, the blessing of the union is not considered key to the program. Because the ministry hopes to significantly expand the voluntary summer teaching program instead of mandating teachers to return to work, the province does not foresee issues with collective bargaining agreements.
Naturally, this means the program’s significant expansion is dependent on willing educators. Details of how many teachers will administer the program and how students can participate in the expanded educational opportunity are expected to follow through the ministry and local school boards in the weeks to come.
High school students across Peel face uncertainty around needed credits and implications for their future plans
“We are more than doubling the available access to this program, we really want to see more young people participating,” Lecce explained. “It is going to be based on in-class instruction with very strong protocols in place, in addition to a virtual component for those who may not want to go in class or feel uncomfortable in class at this point.”
The announcement came alongside a promise of additional investment in student groups who may not have the same advantages as some of their peers, though details were not abundant.
How a return to classrooms during the summer will work remains unclear. Other jurisdictions around the world hit by the virus earlier than Ontario, offer a glimpse into possible changes.
In Europe, some students have started to gingerly return to very different school environments from the ones they left in March.
Germany offers one example. Students aged 11 and 12 are returning in a staggered system, with teaching alternating between school and home. Physical education and music have also been temporarily removed from the curriculum as subjects that are difficult to make safe in the world of COVID-19.
In-person interactions for younger students may also take place with the return of summer day camps firmly on the table. On condition that “key public health indicators continue to improve,” July and August could see limited summer camps enabled with strict health and safety measures in place.
Responding to calls from various cities for more autonomy on the reopening process, including those in Peel, local public health bodies will be allowed to make the final call about when it is safe for children to attend summer camps. In Brampton and Mississauga, Peel Public Health will be given that power.
As these camps are often held in ministry-controlled schools, it remains unclear who will have the final authority on greenlighting the use of public schools for any summer camp activity.
Asked by The Pointer what thresholds would have to be reached to give the green light, Doctor Lawrence Loh, interim medical officer of health at the Region of Peel, was unclear.
“We continue to explore various metrics and indicators,” he explained. “We’re actively in discussion with other health unit partners to see what makes sense going forward. Certainly anything we do would be in consultation with our health units on thresholds and in line with best evidence and data that we can.”
Both cities are providers of summer camps to tens of thousands of parents during the warmer months. Many are proceeding cautiously with their plans, awaiting final word from Peel Public Health and the province. In Mississauga, the city is “prepared to offer” the camps if health guidelines allow, while Brampton, staff are “reviewing the necessary steps” to open camps safely.
For parents, it means the uncertainty continues.
While the province allows businesses to slowly reopen and more and more people are called back to work, questions around childcare for families will grow louder. During the initial weeks of lockdown, those laid off or working from home were able to provide their own care, while frontline workers were offered emergency options.
As Ontario shifts up a gear, what children of all ages will do in the summer remains shrouded in whatifery and buts. Any clarity brought to families by the end of the school year will be welcome, though that relief may quickly take a back seat as more questions bubble to the surface about what the warmer months will mean, with nowhere for children to go.
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