TORONTO -- Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the province will release a decision in the coming weeks as to how remote learning might be integrated into the education system going forward.

“I believe so strongly that keeping schools open is fundamental to their (children’s) health and to their wellness, but I also believe parents will make the best decisions for their children,” Lecce told reporters at Queen’s Park. “So right now we're consulting with a variety of partners in education to get their perspective on how we can potentially create a system that is safe, but also provides parents the choice that I think Ontarians benefited from this past September.”

He said a decision would be released in the coming weeks.

The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday that the province is considering making remote learning a permanent part of the public school system.

The paper reported that parents could have the option of enrolling their children in full-time synchronous remote learning starting in September of this year.

Students have been engaged in a mix of in-person and remote learning for about a year now in order to provide more space to physically distance in classrooms because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ontario’s teacher unions slammed the reported move Thursday.  

“The move to virtual learning was never intended to be permanent; it was a temporary measure intended to deliver emergency instruction during a global health crisis,” Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario President Sam Hammond said in a statement Thursday.

Hammond said the plan would divert funds from public education to private companies.

“To be clear, this plan will negatively affect students, increase inequities, lower standards in publicly funded education, and put us one step closer to the privatization of public education,” he said.

In a statement provided to CTV News Toronto Thursday, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said online learning has been “absolutely critical in ensuring students' continuity of learning throughout the pandemic and in mitigating learning loss.

“We continue to consult and engage with stakeholders on maintaining this choice for parents and ensuring its availability this September. The budget delivers additional investments in strengthening the online learning system, as well as a significant boost in broadband funding for families and schools across Ontario.”

Lecce’s office would not say whether the government would move to make remote learning a permanent option.

In the 2021 budget tabled yesterday, the Ford government pledged $40 million to “to help ensure that students and teachers can seamlessly participate in remote learning in response to COVID‐19, and for the future.”

The Globe also reported that the ministry was looking at making it mandatory for teacher education programs to cover teaching in a virtual environment.

Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation President Harvey Bischoff told CP24 Thursday that he can't see how the move would benefit students.

“I'm not sure what the pros are at all because I don't know what problem it is the ministry is trying to solve,” he said. “We've seen all this year them saying that keeping schools open in a face-to-face setting was the highest priority and, you know, I agree with that as a priority, even though they failed to put in sufficient resources. But now they're saying they want to create a permanent remote learning option and I just can't reconcile those two things.”

Ontario Elementary Catholic Teachers Association President Liz Stuart also told CP24 she doesn't see the benefit for students.

“I think we can all agree that safety is always paramount but both the education and health experts have been very clear about the fact that we understand the importance of in-person learning because that's the best for students, not just academically which is important, but also for that social and emotional piece,” Stuart said.

She added that there is still no solid data about learning outcomes for students who learn remotely.

Responding to some of the criticism from the unions, Lecce told CP24 that “the system will continue to be run by a publicly-funded system of education, led only by Ontario-certified teachers.”

Lecce said remote learning has the potential to help reduce learning loss on snow days and in other situations and to expand course offerings for students who might not be able to register for a course in their regular school. He also added that the system is still very new and best practices are still being discovered.

“We're trying to mitigate learning loss, I think we are trying to understand how can we use the strengths of online learning, either as a backstop, or as a primary choice for those parents that choose it,” he said.

He added that the online learning system “has dramatically improved from last spring.”