Hats off to teachers, educational support staff, and education leaders who have quickly led a historic transition from traditional bricks and mortar programming to online and homeschool education programs for a majority of Canadian K-12 students. Considering the short timeline, adhering to the protocols set forth by our political leaders, and the limited teaching resources, the educational community, students and families came together in the most professional and efficient manner.
Kudos also need to be extended to provincial Education cabinet ministers for giving school districts the autonomy and latitude to implement learning programs that best suit the diverse and unique needs of the students in their prospective jurisdictions. The ‘one size fits all’ approach rarely works, which is the whole premise behind school choice in a multicultural and pluralistic society.
Social freedoms and liberties are best preserved when we acknowledge that parents are the first educators of their children and that they not only have the right, but the duty, to seek out an education that best suits the individual and unique needs of their children. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with this premise. Some beliefs are rooted in the idea that society’s freedoms and liberties are best preserved only when all children attend state-funded public schools, commonly dubbed as a great ‘equalizer’.
The COVID-19 pandemic, through the measures taken by our elected officials, has eliminated all choices except one: home education using online learning. The recent abrupt transition to home and online learning was not a choice by many Canadian families, but under the dire circumstances, it has been accepted. Once we are through this pandemic, will home and online learning platforms become a desirable educational choice by students and families, or will this type of learning be preferred only by our governments and governing authorities?
Home education and online learning is not a new frontier in education, rather it is a growing trend among students who seek a high-quality personalized education with a flexible schedule.
It is a school choice that works well for some students, families, and educators. People who choose this delivery method escape the traditional workday hours, allowing for students and teachers to pursue other interests while receiving an education and earning an income.
Home education and online learning programs also have fiscal advantages. Obviously transportation, infrastructure, and maintenance costs will be minimized, but so will human resources. Educators employed by school authorities with titles such as lead teacher, curriculum coordinators, and learning specialists, who are tasked with providing support and guidance to classroom teachers in traditional classroom settings, could possibly be viewed as redundant, as well as their supervising managers in the roles of Directors and Associate Superintendents.
Economic downturns force governments and governing authorities to seriously look at their spending and make changes that are contrary to our conventional ways. Recently on March 28, 2020, Alberta’s Education Minister announced temporary layoffs for education assistants and support staff. When students are not in school, these jobs are redundant. $128M in savings was redirected to Alberta’s COVID-19 response plan.
A second example was led by the Edmonton Public School Board. In February 2020, in response to the budget proposed by the Alberta government, the board voted in favour of cutting instructional days, thus reducing operating costs by $2.7M.
The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly caused a crisis in national and international economies, forcing governments to spend billions of dollars through subsidies and aid packages. But where does this money come from? Post-pandemic policy measures will require every government department, agency, and individual citizen to ‘belt tighten’ in order to get through this crisis. The transition to home education and online learning has been tried and tested. Is it a perfect system? Obviously not, but what is obvious is when students, teachers, and support staff spend less time in school buildings, there are substantial savings.
Would it be unreasonable to fathom that governments may reduce instructional days or mandate home education programming in a post-pandemic era in order to provide relief to a suffering economy? The answer right now is unclear but be prepared to continue to see more unprecedented changes in our education system.
Janis Nett is a research associate with the Frontier Center for Public Policy.