OPINION: Is remote learning here to stay?

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By Nick Seebruch
OPINION: Is remote learning here to stay?
Remote Learning stock image from pixabay.com

A distinct change has occurred in our modern society as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Finding ways to stay at home rather than going out has become the trend, and this extends to our work lives, and for students, their school lives as well.

Earlier this month, the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) the largest school board in the region saw their trustees undertake a serious discussion of what to do about remote learning after the pandemic.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has already made some serious indications that they intended to allow school boards to continue to offer full-time remote learning as an option for students after the pandemic is over.

This raised some serious concerns for UCDSB trustees, but the wheels are already in motion and whether they like it or not, I don’t think remote learning is going anywhere.

Speaking, I think, to more than just the audience in the room at their meeting on April 14 Board Chair John McAllister summed up the upheaval that public education is about to face.

“E-Learning could become a reality to the point where students will not have to take courses in-person, in-school,” McAllister said. “And what this really means is that some of our small schools may close. I want our municipal leaders to know that because this is important.”

He added “if we do not have people in bricks and mortar schools, where I believe the best learning occurs, then we are in trouble.”

In just a few lines I think McAllister perfectly explained the temptation and the pitfalls that remote learning will present to school boards across North America and potentially across the world.

One of if not the biggest expense for school boards is their brick and mortar buildings. Not too long ago in 2016 the UCDSB undertook a Pupil Accommodation Review (PAR) and moved to close and consolidate a number of their schools as a cost saving measure, with only a few ultimately being closed for good.

The idea of cutting out the biggest expense from your budget would be a major temptation to any administrator, and whether that is the intention of the UCDSB or not, I think that at least some of their contemporaries in other boards might fall to that temptation, and when something starts becoming a new standard, it can be a Herculean task to fight against that current.

McAllister clearly has a preference for in-person learning, and his Board’s own data seems support that belief.

At the end of March the UCDSB released testing and grade data for high school students and found that for Quadmester 2 for Grade 9-12 students 96 per cent of in-person students successfully completed their courses, while for online synchronous students, that number fell to 85 per cent. These numbers would indicate that in-person learning is still a successful form for delivering education, but, as we learned from the PAR experience, grades aren’t always a deciding factor. Several of the schools slated for closure in 2016 had some of the best grades in the region.

There is definitely more than just grades to consider when looking at the advantages and disadvantages of remote learning. I am currently working on a story about how mental health has been impacted by the pandemic, and I have spoken with leaders in crisis organizations in the Cornwall area who are concerned, especially that children, are experiencing more abuse because they are stuck at home. I am still working on fully investigating this issue, but the mental health, safety, and social development of children when they are no longer in the classroom should be seriously studied before the province moves to make remote learning a permanent option for parents going forward.

That being said, much like remote work, I think remote learning really isn’t going to go away. I just hope that all of the impacts of that decision are carefully examined before school boards begin to give into the temptation of dollars and start closing any schools.

What do you think readers? What is the future of education? Email me a Letter to the Editor at nseebruch@seawaynews.media

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