Make Schools ‘A No-Go Zone for Closure,’ Says Education Expert

By Lee Harding
Lee Harding
Lee Harding
Lee Harding is a journalist and think tank researcher based in Saskatchewan, and a contributor to The Epoch Times.
July 27, 2022 Updated: July 27, 2022

As Ontario and other provinces offer more tax dollars to help students catch up on schooling losses during the pandemic, some education experts say the more important consideration is to keep schools from ever closing again.

On July 25, the Ontario government presented a Plan to Catch Up that provides more than $26.6 billion in funding for the 2022–23 school year in support of K12 students on their education. The plan earmarks $14 billion to build schools and repair existing schools, $90 million for mental health supports, and $175 million to provide tutoring, focusing on reading, writing, and math. The program implements a more skills-focused curriculum to prepare students for employment and calls for schools to include a full set of experiences, such as clubs, band, and field trips.

An enthusiastic start to the school year is welcome news to Irvin Studin, chair of the Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic) and president of the Initiative for 21st Century Questions.

“The new school year must start with huge energy and ambition—none of this nonsense about safe schooling and steady as she goes with an abundance of caution. These are very Canadian pathologies that we have to overcome,” the Toronto-area resident said in an interview.

“It has to be huge energy, huge ambition to catch up on learning and prepare these kids—no zombie theatre or anything like that, none of this masks and social-distancing nonsense. All of it is school, school, school hyper-energy. Otherwise we’ll never make up the learning loss.”

Studin, a Rhodes scholar who has been a professor of public policy in leading universities and policy schools, says the loss of instructional time due to pandemic measures left many Canadian children with “huge learning loss and huge learning lags” in a wide range of categories.

“It would be universal, from social skills and self-confidence and ability to navigate complex social and intellectual circumstances, to the basic curricular knowledge that’s missing: reading and arithmetic, and basic civic literacy, problem-solving, social skills, and physical competence,” he says. “Also, the ability to play sports.”

Studin estimates that Ontario students compose half of the 200,000 Canadian students who dropped out during the pandemic, never to return. He says Canada needs to emulate Argentina, Chile, Sri Lanka, and some U.S. states by seeking out lost students and returning them to school this fall.

“All the school boards, all the schools need to go back to their [early 2020] attendance list. Who was in school at that time and where are they now? This is a huge national triangulation of attendance lists,” he said.

“If the child is not in school, … you reach out to community leaders, to families, and in the end to ministries of education to make sure that the [school attendance] law is enforced, that the child also has access to education.”

Joanna VanHof, an education researcher with the Cardus think tank, says most Ontario public schools lost 29 to 33 weeks of education due to the pandemic, which is nearly a full year of school.

“We know that the effect was definitely detrimental, and that now there’s a lot of catch-up that needs to be done in order to regain the learning that was lost, and also to assist in the recovery for both educators and students,” she told The Epoch Times.

“Standardized testing here in Ontario was put on hold during the pandemic, so it’s difficult to even make the assessments of how much learning has been lost accurately.”

‘View Schools as an Essential Service’

VanHof says the tutoring dollars probably won’t go far enough to substantially impact Ontario’s 1.9 million kindergarten to Grade 12 students. She points out that independent schools that can’t access the tutoring dollars or other taxpayer supports outperformed their public system counterparts during the pandemic.

“Forty-eight percent of Ontario Christian schools didn’t miss a single day of instruction. The shutdown happened in the March break [2020], and they were able to pivot immediately following the March break into remote learning,” she said.

“And then 84 percent of [independent] schools would miss less than four days of instruction. [They] took a few days to pivot—that’s it. And then, once the schooling was going, most of those schools received double the amount of instruction that the ministry had recommended, which was three hours per day.”

VanHof, who has a master’s degree in education leadership and policy from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, is studying ways for the province to ensure schools stay open.

“We could view schools as an essential service, so that it wouldn’t be necessary to shut them down in future pandemic crises, or any type of crisis, really, … similar to the ways that hospitals stay open,” she said.

Studin says independent schools were “heroically counterintuitive” and “did a great service for young people” by continuing education and maintaining regular hours of instruction during the pandemic. Now he wants decision-makers to establish all schools as “a no-go zone for closure.”

“Never again must we imagine that we’re saving a life by closing the school,” he said.

“Unless there’s war at the gates of the school, we do not close the school, not even for a day—they’re that central to the life of children. As soon as you close them for even a day, let alone a week, a month, very dark things happen to society, things that are medieval, that we just are only now coming to appreciate.”

Lee Harding
Lee Harding is a journalist and think tank researcher based in Saskatchewan, and a contributor to The Epoch Times.