Should Schools in Ontario Pivot to Online Learning on Snow Days?

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The Ontario administration is encouraging school boards to turn to remote learning during closures caused by the weather, a section of the province’s back-to-school plan that one expert titles “a fundamental misunderstanding of how learning occurs over time.”

On Tuesday, Ontario issued a 26-page guide to resuming school in the fall. In the plan, the government stated that kids would be going back to school in person—unless parents choose virtual learning—and that masks will be compulsory for all students between Grade 1 and Grade 12. It also indicated several “protective strategies” including self-screenings, ventilation and cleaning protocols.

There was also a segment on severe weather.

“School boards are required to develop inclement weather plans and policies which may include pivoting to remote learning,” the report stated.

“These plans should include an approach for heat days. School boards should develop the plans in consultation with their local public health units.”

In the background, the government ascertained on Thursday that boards are being urged to fashion a plan that would consist of a pivot to remote learning during board closures because of severe weather; however, there is no expectation that all boards will do so.

Lana Parker, University of Windsor Professor of Education revealed that when she read that segment on the back-to-school plan she questioned why it was important for the administration and why it was a must to make it part of the bigger conversation when it came to COVID-19 planning for the fall.

“I don’t believe that there’s data to support that there’s learning loss as a result of sporadic school closures for snow and weather days,” Parker informed CTV News Toronto on Thursday.

“I think what’s important for the community to understand is that every time a government asks for a policy on something, or asks for a school plan, that there’s an opportunity cost to that. So my question to this government would be why are we deploying resources, valuable resources that might be urgently needed to improve things like school safety, or remote online learning or in-class pedagogies for engagement … Why do we need at this moment to consider plans for snow days?”

Parker added that one or two days off school because of the weather would not result in a gap in their education.

She said,

“One of the things that strikes me as I consider why snow days would be a concern is, you know, this idea that somehow children are like widgets in a factory … this kind of mentality of, you know, business closures and losing sales or potential revenue. It seems like there’s kind of an imported rhetoric or idea from the business world into the public education sphere, and that doesn’t fit at all because schools aren’t factories for information.”

“I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how learning occurs over time, and of how students respond to what it is that they’re navigating as they make connections with one another, their teachers, and the curriculum.”

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has claimed they are presently reviewing the stipulations for the upcoming school year and have yet to conclude on inclement weather days. Nonetheless, for the 2020-2021 term, the board concluded not to change their severe weather procedures.

In the occurrence of bus cancellations, the TDSB does not shutter schools automatically. But, last year if the board chose to close schools, they say that “virtual schools will not operate.”

Their website says,

“We will not be providing remote learning on days when schools are closed due to severe weather.”

WILL ALL STUDENTS BE ABLE TO MAKE THE PIVOT?

For some teachers, the thought of pivoting to online learning for one day isn’t worth the efforts, particularly considering issues of equity and access to technology for all students.

Parker said,

“A plan to pivot online for a day doesn’t account for the fact that many families don’t have online technology for those students to use.”

“And there’s no way, you know, for schools to get that technology in the hands of students for a single day.”

A Simcoe County educator informed CTV News Toronto that she works in an affluent community and the amount of technology needing distribution to families for remote learning over the last year was “significant.”

Jen, who only wanted to be identified by her first name, said,

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like at a different school in my board that is not as affluent.”

“There are a lot of families out there who don’t have the technology to pivot overnight. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

On the social platforms, parents and other educators reiterated that sentiment, noting that not everyone can make such a fast transition to remote learning and that the choice could stain the students.

The number of weather-related days off school is limited for many Ontario students. Jen observed that in her estimated 10 years of teaching in Simcoe County, she could remember a maximum of six or seven snow days in a single year.

While the circumstances may be different in each school board, some boards are located in Ontario areas that get a lot more snow and others where most of the population walks or takes public transportation—Parker states that the majority of schools critically affected by weather will probably already have a plan in place.

She said,

“I think that there are maybe some communities where there are multiple weather days in a school year. And I think that those communities likely have plans in place already for continued learning or suggestions for students and families that don’t require technology, and that don’t require consistent internet.”

“So I think that this is slightly misguided to try and execute this alongside the other kinds of COVID concerns and questions that we have.”

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) added that the exercise of utilizing virtual learning in the event of extreme weather began in 2020 and that in most cases, “inclement weather days are still instructional days.”

“In rare cases, schools are fully closed but for the most part, they are kept open for student learning. Boards have always developed individual policies with regards to inclement weather,” a spokesperson declared in a statement.

“We would still have concerns with regards to equity that students have limited access to learning materials from home and may have connection challenges once face to face learning resumes.

The OSSTF said that it will take “much preparation and transportation of tech and learning materials on short notice” to implement this policy.

When asked about a probable pivot to online learning on severe weather days, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario revealed they expect boards to abide by contractual obligations for staff.

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