TORONTO -- The Ontario government is encouraging school boards to pivot to remote learning during closures due to weather, an element of the province’s back-to-school plan that one expert calls “a fundamental misunderstanding of how learning occurs over time.”

On Tuesday, Ontario released a 26-page guide to reopening schools in the fall. In it, the government said that kids would be going back to school in person—unless parents opt for virtual learning—and that masks will be mandatory for all students between Grade 1 and Grade 12. It also listed a number of “protective strategies” including self-screenings, ventilation and cleaning protocols.

There was also a section on severe weather.

“School boards are required to develop inclement weather plans and policies which may include pivoting to remote learning,” the report said.

“These plans should include an approach for heat days. School boards should develop the plans in consultation with their local public health units.”

On background, the government confirmed Thursday that boards are being encouraged to create a plan that would include a pivot to remote learning during board closures due to severe weather, but there is no expectation that all boards will do so.

University of Windsor Professor of Education Lana Parker said that when she read that section of the back-to-school plan she questioned why it was a priority for the government and why it was necessary to make it part of the larger conversation when it came to pandemic planning for the fall.

“I don't believe that there's data to support that there's learning loss as a result of sporadic school closures for snow and weather days,” Parker told CTV News Toronto on Thursday.

“I think what's important for the community to understand is that every time a government asks for a policy on something, or asks for a school plan, that there's an opportunity cost to that. So my question to this government would be why are we deploying resources, valuable resources that might be urgently needed to improve things like school safety, or remote online learning or in-class pedagogies for engagement … Why do we need at this moment to consider plans for snow days?”

Parker adds that one or two days off school due to weather will not lead to a gap in their education.

“One of the things that strikes me as I consider why snow days would be a concern is, you know, this idea that somehow children are like widgets in a factory … this kind of mentality of, you know, business closures and losing sales or potential revenue. It seems like there's kind of an imported rhetoric or idea from the business world into the public education sphere, and that doesn't fit at all because schools aren’t factories for information,” she said.

“I think that's a fundamental misunderstanding of how learning occurs over time, and of how students respond to what it is that they're navigating as they make connections with one another, their teachers and the curriculum.”

Online learning

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has said they are currently reviewing the guidelines for the upcoming school year and have yet to make a decision on inclement weather days. However, for the 2020-2021 term, the board decided not to change their severe weather procedures.

In the event of bus cancellations, the TDSB does not automatically shutter schools. However, last year if the board decided to close schools, they say that “virtual schools will not operate.”

“We will not be providing remote learning on days when schools are closed due to severe weather,” their website says.

WILL ALL STUDENTS BE ABLE TO MAKE THE PIVOT?

For some educators, the thought of pivoting to online learning for a single day isn’t worth the efforts, especially considering issues of equity and access to technology for all students.

“A plan to pivot online for a day doesn't account for the fact that many families don't have online technology for those students to use,” Parker said. “And there's no way, you know, for schools to get that technology in the hands of students for a single day.”

An educator from Simcoe County told CTV News Toronto that she works in an affluent community and the amount of technology that was needed to be distributed to families for remote learning over the past year was “significant.”

“I can't even imagine what it would be like at a different school in my board that is not as affluent,” Jen, who only wanted to be identified by her first name, said. “There are a lot of families out there who don’t have the technology to pivot overnight. It just doesn't make any sense.”

On social media, parents and other educators echoed that sentiment, saying that not everyone has the ability to make such a fast transition to remote learning and that the decision could put a strain on students.

For many Ontario students, the number of weather-related days off school is limited. Jen noted that in her roughly 10 years of teaching in Simcoe County, she can remember a maximum of six or seven snow days declared in a single year.

While the situation may be different in each school board—some boards are located in areas of Ontario that get a lot more snow and others where the majority of the population walks or takes public transportation—Parker says that the majority of schools seriously impacted by weather will likely already have a plan in place.

“I think that there are maybe some communities where there are multiple weather days in a school year. And I think that those communities likely have plans in place already for continued learning or suggestions for students and families that don't require technology, and that don't require consistent internet,” she said.

“So I think that this is slightly misguided to try and execute this alongside the other kinds of COVID concerns and questions that we have.”

classroom

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) added that the practice of using virtual learning in the event of extreme snow and heat began last year, and that most of the times, “inclement weather days are still instructional days.”

“In rare cases, schools are fully closed but for the most part they are kept open for student learning. Boards have always developed individual policies with regards to inclement weather,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“We would still have concerns with regards to equity that students have limited access to learning materials from home and may have connection challenges once face to face learning resumes.

The OSSTF added that it will take “much preparation and transportation of tech and learning materials on short notice” to put this policy in place.

When asked about a possible pivot to online learning on severe weather days, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario said they expect boards to comply with contractual obligations for staff.