We Should Aim for Normal School This Fall

May 14, 2021 Updated: May 14, 2021

Commentary

It looks like schools are going to be limping across the finish line this year. Due to high COVID-19 case numbers, students in Ontario, Alberta, and Nova Scotia are currently in remote learning mode while students in other provinces continue to follow strict social distancing rules.

Clearly, this has not been a normal year, and students have suffered. This learning environment, which is suboptimal, cannot continue. We cannot afford to throw away another school year.

The good news is that we don’t have to. Vaccines are finally being administered in large numbers, and about half of Canadians have already received their first shot. By the time the school year begins in the fall, most Canadians will be fully vaccinated.

As we’ve seen in countries such as Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States, high vaccination rates have brought the COVID-19 pandemic under control. Not only have COVID-related deaths and hospitalization rates plummeted, but these countries are relaxing public health restrictions. Life is slowly returning to normal.

We can expect the same thing to happen in Canada. This means that schools can reopen this fall and run normal in-school classes. Schools should also be able to offer extra-curricular programs. Band concerts, sports tournaments, theatre productions, and board game clubs will likely be up-and-running as well. Students deserve a normal school year, and we should be able to give it to them.

Unfortunately, some school boards are being overly cautious. For example, the York Region School Board (YRSB), the third-largest board in Ontario, has already announced that it intends to offer hybrid learning programs for the entire 2021/2022 school year. This means that cameras will be installed in all classrooms and teachers will be required to teach in-person and remote students at the same time.

However, hybrid learning is a disaster in the making. There’s a world of a difference between teaching students in-person and teaching students remotely. Expecting teachers to teach both groups simultaneously will shortchange students of a quality education. Neither group of students will receive the attention they deserve.

There is no need for YRSB, or any other school board, to force hybrid learning on teachers and students. It’s understandable that this option was used when there was no clear indication when the pandemic would end. But the evidence is now clear that life will return to normal when most people have been fully vaccinated.

Some other school boards are also being unreasonably cautious. For example, the Waterloo Region District School Board recently sent out a survey to parents asking them to choose between in-person and remote learning for the 2021/2022 school year. Parents were expected to finalize their choice by May 3, and that choice will be locked in for the entire school year.

This is absurd. There are probably going to be a number of parents who choose remote learning, not because they believe it’s best for their children, but because they want their children to be safe in case COVID-19 infections increase. It’s possible that parents would make a different decision if they didn’t have to decide until August when things will probably look much better.

Unfortunately, the Ontario government created this problem when it mandated that all school boards provide a remote learning option for the next school year. This might make sense right now when transmission rates are high, but it will not make sense in the fall when the remaining COVID-19 cases will almost certainly be under control. The unfortunate reality is that provincial mandates like this one force parents to choose between equally unpalatable options.

There is, however, a better way forward. Instead of planning the entire 2021/2022 around an unlikely worst-case scenario, school boards should plan for a mostly normal school year. This doesn’t mean that administrators should throw caution to the wind. Curtailing large assemblies and limiting the number of spectators at sporting events are reasonable precautions without disrupting classroom learning.

Hybrid classrooms and remote learning should not be mandated by school boards for next year. The best evidence shows that widespread vaccinations will bring this pandemic under control before September. Students have suffered enough from the COVID-19 restrictions they have already experienced. Let’s give them what they deserve—a normal school year.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.