Prior to the 2018 election, online education was the exception in Ontario public schools, not the rule. But after the election — and even before the pandemic — a manufactured crisis in March 2019 led the Ontario government to make online learning a graduation requirement for high school students.
The government’s decision to impose mandatory online learning was part of a larger plan to cut millions of dollars from the public education system by increasing class sizes and cutting funding for programs and teaching. personnel that are essential to the health and well-being of students.
Resistance to this plan by parents and students, by education workers and unions, and by community organizers and policy experts has certainly helped limit the damage. But that didn’t completely stop the government’s plan.
Today, high school students must complete two credits of online learning unless they opt out of this graduation requirement. Unfortunately, the withdrawal does not change the reality that less funding follows every student, no matter what they choose to do. According to the funding formula, funding for an average e-learning classroom assumes classes of 30 students per teacher; for in-person classes, the ratio is 23:1.
While students can opt out of mandatory online learning and take all of their classes in person, school boards are funded as if each high school student took two classes online. In other words, e-learning is optional; the budget cuts that go with it are not.
Never let a good crisis go to waste
Ontario has been unique in Canada for its enthusiastic and early adoption of online education, misusing it to inflate class sizes, cut staff and cut in-person programs. The real crisis of the pandemic in education is that the government has used it to widen the scope of online education to include:
COVID-19 has highlighted the value of in-person learning as much as it has highlighted the role of technology in mitigating (temporarily and unevenly) the impact caused by school closures. On a large scale, many families have struggled to participate in online learning. In addition, according to a major international study by Human Rights Watch, governments have also “directly endangered or violated children’s privacy and the rights of other children, for purposes unrelated to their education”.
As many of us have found, online learning is no substitute for the benefits of a public K-12 system, which connects students to in-person support and vital social services during their formative years.
This year, as provinces and territories across Canada transitioned students from online to in-person learning, especially for the youngest and those most in need of support, Ontario has continued to impose online education. In fact, Queen’s Park has gone further by offering to make it a permanent part of the public education system, including for K-8 students. Faced with reductions in in-person course offerings, many more high school students will be forced to adopt a standardized online learning model.
The government’s latest proposal not only makes full-time K-12 virtual schools mandatory, with no additional funding planned for administration, but it will also centralize the administration of online learning credits through the ILC. from TVO. The IEC will assume responsibility for delivering courses to high school students in Ontario and, to generate revenue, it will market online courses outside the province. Courses delivered by ILC will have no limits on class size or live learning. The Ontario Public School Boards Association came out against the plan in 2020, fearing it “risks privatization with competing priorities and agendas.”
The current government is one election away from delivering on its e-learning proposal, paving the way for a unique model of online education that leaves the province vulnerable to corporate intrusion.
Oppose slash-and-burn policies
Since the election of the current government four years ago, public funding for education has declined and COVID-19 has exacerbated education inequalities. In 2021-22, school boards across the province received $1.6 billion less in today’s dollars than in 2017-18. This translates to a loss of $800 per student, on average.
The impact of these shortfalls is documented in CCPA Ontario catch up together, which sets out two possible policy directions for the province: The first is to invest in public education and narrow the opportunity gap, which has widened since the pandemic. The second is to make education an endless competition for dwindling resources, which can only push parents with means towards private sector alternatives.
In contrast, the NDP, Liberals and Queen’s Park Greens have pledged to invest in public education and have all pledged to scrap the mandatory two-credit requirement of e-learning and blended learning. Each party offers a distinct vision for strengthening public education.
Regardless of the June 2 outcome, we will have a long way to go to undo the damage suffered over four years of successive crises and austerity budgeting.
Beyhan Farhadi is a postdoctoral researcher at York University’s Faculty of Education. She is currently researching the relationship between education policy, online learning, and equity during COVID-19. She is also a high school teacher with the Toronto District School Board, with a decade of experience teaching online. His research and teaching practice intersect with his advocacy of a fully funded public education system. Beyhan is also a CCPA-Ontario Research Associate.