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Coursework could continue even if Ontario schools don't reopen: minister

The Minister of Education sent an open letter out to parents on Sunday
School classroom/Shutterstock

TORONTO — Ontario is looking at ways to keep coursework going if the COVID-19 pandemic prevents schools from reopening on April 6 as planned, the province's education minister said in an open letter to parents on Sunday.

The announcement builds on previous news that the province had launched an online learning portal aimed at preventing students from falling behind during the two-week school closure that follows March break.

"Although publicly funded schools are ordered closed until April 6, the fluidity of developments around COVID-19 means we are preparing in the event the closure period is further extended," Lecce wrote.

"Specifically, we are working to ensure that students will be able to continue their coursework and credit accumulation, even when we aren't able to be in a classroom setting."

He said the province is working to expand existing online learning tools to keep students on track, and noted that the government is reaching out to school boards to ensure that students who don't currently have access to a computer at home get the technology they need to participate.

Lecce also had a reassuring message for parents of students in a graduating year.

"We want to make this clear: no graduating student will have their ability to graduate impacted by the two-week closure and the COVID19 developments," he wrote.

He listed cancellation of EQAO tests and removing the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test as a requirement for graduating as barriers he's lifted.

Lecce also said his ministry is working with counterparts in other ministries to make sure students can apply to post-secondary education regardless of the situation this semester.

"During this time, I encourage you to continue to have open conversations with your children about COVID-19 and acknowledge that their reactions to this period — however emotional — are understandable and normal," Lecce wrote.  

He also urged those returning from March break trips to self-isolate for 14 days, echoing the strong suggestions of officials at all levels of government.

But as the province looked to online learning during the pandemic, the executive director of advocacy and research group People for Education said the government needs to understand parents can't be expected to replace teachers.

"Parents can support their kids in trying to continue learning in some kind of semi-formal way," Annie Kidder said. "But we have to remember we can't really ask parents that they do a whole other job on top of the job they're already doing."

Kidder said while it's good that the province is attempting to provide resources to students online, parents will have a wide range of ability to help their children utilize the material.

"If you are a family that's struggling or you've been laid off from work or you don't speak English ... and you're trying to deal with little kids at home while you work, trying to figure out some way to continue to learn that is very, very hard," she said. "It's a lot to ask of parents."

Online learning, which has became a hot-button issue during a contentious round of bargaining between the government and teachers' unions over the past six months, will be scrutinized now, Kidder said.

"I think maybe this will help us to recognize that e-learning is not simple," she said. "It has to involve actual human beings that are teachers. There is a relationship component of learning."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2020.

Nicole Thompson and Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press