'We can't flip a switch': E-learning unlikely solution for all Canadian students if COVID-19 closes schools

The potential shutdown of schools across Canada would leave parents scrambling for child care, all the while worrying about the academic impact it will have on their children. And it would raise questions if students will be able to be taught in some capacity, without them being on campus.

Ontario announced public schools will close for 2 weeks after March Break

A potential shutdown of schools across Canada would leave parents scrambling for child care, all the while worrying about the academic impact it will have on their children. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images)

Katie Dupuis, editor-in-chief of ParentsCanada magazine and mom to two school-aged children, says the Ontario government's decision to close public schools for an extra two weeks after March Break because of the coronavirus pandemic will certainly pose a challenge for her and other parents.

"If it extends even longer than those two weeks or [like] other countries where it's indefinite, do they lose a year? I don't know. But I think that's definitely a worrisome thing," she said. "I can imagine something like this is gonna have a big impact."

It may also be a harbinger of things to come for schools across Canada, where parents are left scrambling for child care, all the while worrying about the academic impact indefinite closures will have on their children. As well, it raises questions if Canadian schools will be able to continue teaching students in some capacity, without them being on campus.

So far, with no widespread transmission of the disease in Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has not recommended the closures of Canadian schools. Still, it's possible that provinces will take unilateral action, like in Ontario, and decide on their own to shut down schools.

On Friday, Quebec Premier François Legault announced all schools, universities, daycares and CEGEPs in the province will be closed for two weeks starting Monday. 

PHAC has said that a school closure would lead to significant consequences for certain groups, such as single parents and caregivers, children who participate in school-based nutrition programs, families who cannot afford increased child-care costs and parents without flexible work arrangements or paid leave benefits.

"It poses a challenge for people who have to work and who don't have family support nearby," Dupuis said. 

It is possible that with companies allowing more and more people to work at home because of the virus, it will somewhat lessen the stress on parents. But even those situations can pose issues for some parents, she said.

"I work from home. Having my kids underfoot … that has been a challenge and takes some extra planning."

Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and professor of global health law and political science at York University, said there are other issues to consider.

The Toronto District School Board is finalizing contingency plans in the event of indefinite closures. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

"Everyone immediately only thinks of the inconvenience to parents and children who are affected," he said. "Many of those parents are going to be doctors and nurses who might not be available at a hospital if they have to worry about taking care of their kids who are no longer in school."

'We are entering uncharted territory'

Indeed, as noted by Paul W. Bennett, education consultant, researcher and director of the Halifax-based Schoolhouse Consulting, the August 2009 issue of the Lancet found that if all U.K. schools closed, some 30 per cent of health and social care workers would be taken out of commission.

Meanwhile, a recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that one in five students worldwide is staying away from school due to COVID-19 and an additional one in four is being kept out of higher education establishments.

"We are entering uncharted territory and working with countries to find hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.

Some countries that have closed their schools have implemented online learning strategies. Universities in the United States, including Harvard and Princeton, have announced they will be cancelling on-campus classes and transitioning to online courses. Some Canadian universities, like Western University, are following suit, while others are exploring such strategies.

On Friday, The University of Toronto announced it was cancelling all in-person undergraduate and research-stream masters and doctoral courses across its three campuses and "will provide that teaching by other means (which may include existing online platforms)."

Still, that comes with challenges, Hoffman said. Repackaging a course that was designed for in-person teaching to the online environment will take extraordinary time, resources and energy.

"When you design courses for online, it actually takes deliberate thought and attention as to doing it in a good way. "So if we're asking people just to suddenly teach their in-person courses online, it will be very difficult for those instructors to offer equal quality."

Toronto District School Board (TDSB) spokesperson Ryan Bird said school officials are finalizing contingency plans in the event of indefinite closures. But he cautioned that switching over to online learning, also known as e-learning, would not be so simple for elementary and secondary students.

"That is definitely a challenge at the TDSB and school boards right across the province, if not [the] country. The fact is, with 247,000 [students in Toronto], we can't flip a switch. It really comes down to access to technology. And really something this widespread is really not something that can be easily planned for."

Canada online learning would be 'patchwork'

Bennett, who has researched the topic of online learning, said while some schools in Canada will offer such programs in the event of indefinite closures, it would be patchwork, uneven and promote inequalities. 

COVID-19 case surges have periodically interrupted the school year, with provincial governments across the country shutting down school buildings and forcing children to attend at home online classes. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

"On the scale that would be required to offer consistency in terms of student learning and achievement over the next few months, we might have sufficient capacity to do it for a few days or a week," he said. "But we would not have the capacity, and we have never really developed the capacity to do it for longer than short periods of time."

"School provinces and school districts have not committed enough of their time and energy into developing robust e-learning programs."

As well, for large swaths of Canada, particularly in rural communities, the broadband just isn't there nor the capacity of students to access this kind of learning, he said.

"Scrambling to implement hastily prepared distance learning or online courses will not prove effective at all. Nor are schools fully equipped to administer year-end assessments online or to report the results electronically to students and parents," Bennett recently wrote in the National Post.

But he expressed optimism that school officials in Canada will find ways to continue educating students in the event of widespread school closures.

That could include delivering programmed units — packages of daily activities with homework assignments — for the rest of the year.

"There will be improvisational solutions that will come forward that won't be meeting the highest standards of academic credibility, but they will come forward," he said. 

"It would be inconceivable that they would allow students to lose a year," he said.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.