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How the major events of 2020 are changing education in Ontario

The province is working to address systemic racism in schools and adapting to accommodate COVID-19, as well as updating the math curriculum

School will look a little different in the coming years for students across Ontario, due to some major curriculum changes in response to COVID-19 and international action addressing systemic racism within institutions and beyond.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, school boards have been trying to adapt to online teaching. Now, with the knowledge that the threat of coronavirus will still be present come September, the Ministry of Education said it has advised boards to plan for multiple scenarios.

“Conventional delivery with enhanced safety protocols, adapted delivery that may include blended models of in-person and remote learning and full remote learning, the implementation of these scenarios are dependent on health advice at any point in the school year,” wrote Ingrid Anderson, senior media relations coordinator for the Ministry of Education, in an email.   

Kristen Clarke, dean of teaching and learning at Bishop Strachan School, says that BSS will be switching its high school students to a semestered schedule rather than full-year courses. Most courses will be semestered, with the exception of math in Grades 9 and 10, activity-based health and physical education courses, and a few others that are better suited for full-year learning.

“It’s about manageability. Usually students in our school have eight courses… That’s a lot to carry as a full load throughout the course of the year, so this way we can make sure they have fewer topics to focus on,” she says. Clarke notes that Grade 9 and 10 students carry eight courses a year, and most Grade 11 students also have eight courses, whereas most Grade 12 students have seven courses.

Clarke also says the school learned from student responses to online teaching in the spring of this year.

“We’re moving into a blended environment where kids will be learning online and face to face, and we noticed that prioritizing positive, descriptive feedback, versus a whole bunch of evaluative grades, was really helpful,” she explains. “It sustained many students when they were experiencing stressors and kept them above water in many cases.”

For those with students in elementary school, be prepared for a revamped math curriculum that will now include coding and financial literacy.

“Our government is modernizing our schools, our curriculum, and the delivery of learning, to ensure students are set up to succeed in an increasingly changing world,” Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said according to a press release on July 23.

The curriculum changes also mean that students in Grade 3 and 6 will not be taking the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) assessment in the 2020–2021 school year, as the ministry works on adjusting the math component of the test to align with the new curriculum.

At TFS-Canada’s International School, there will be a large focus on the use of technology as both a medium and a tool for effective teaching and learning, says Khalid El-Metaal, the deputy head of teaching and learning.

“The educators will lever the use of Google Classroom as a teaching and learning platform in order to deliver curriculum content whether students are taking part in-person, online or through a hybrid class,” he says.

Students at TFS will have the option to remain at home and learn through a distance learning model, and other students will take part in in-person sessions with teachers with small class sizes and hybrid classes that take place in online learning spaces on campus.

“While the school is focused on delivering the curriculum effectively, we are also focusing on student wellness, and our first priority for the first few weeks will be forging strong teacher-student relationships, embedding routines and practices that are important in this new learning context, and helping students make sense of the changes, and what is happening around them,” says El-Metaal.


Karen Murray, the centrally assigned principal of equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression on the TDSB

There has also been a push for curriculum changes that better address issues of systemic racism within the school system and more broadly throughout the country.

Since international protests and discussions about racism were sparked after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, advocates have been calling for better and earlier education around race and racism within the classroom.

In response, the Ontario government has looked at some common practices within the current school system that contribute to racism.

“The government recently announced plans to end academic streaming [grouping students by ability] in Grade 9 in response to concerns that the practice has disproportionately affected educational outcomes for Black, Indigenous and low-income students. The government has also proposed a ban on suspending younger, elementary-school students, a practice that also disproportionately affects Black students,” wrote Anderson.

They’ve also promised to strengthen sanctions for teachers who make racist remarks or perform racist actions.

Although that is a start, Karen Murray, the centrally assigned principal of equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression on the Toronto District School Board, says that the board is still working to do more in terms of the curriculum and the school environment for racialized students.

“The intentional work has to happen within the classroom and not in just one specific subject,” she says. “If you’re going to be culturally relevant and responsive, it embeds in all subjects.”

She notes that, in her experience, students are more comfortable talking about racism than teachers, and that’s something Murray says the board will have to work on.

“What [kids] do is they bring their life into the classroom; they talk about what they see, what they lived through. So it’s the adults that have to push against our own hesitation.”

Carl James, a York University professor whose research has focused on the experiences of racialized students in the education system, says bringing those lived experiences of students into the classroom is a necessary step to address some holes in the curriculum.

“It [the education system] is very centered on the European experience,” he says. “Teachers must pay attention to the backgrounds of their students, whether that’s race or gender or where the students come from, in order to prepare and effectively reach their students.”

Murray says she’s seen a positive response from many teachers so far.

“More educators are willing to really begin to have those conversations in their classrooms. Before the year ended, you could see that, heightened requests to help support teaching and talking about race and racism as a result of the things kids are seeing in the news.”

But the curriculum is provincially mandated, meaning Murray has to work within the “wiggle room” to incorporate more diverse content. The provincial government has yet to make any changes to the curriculum to directly add anti-racist requirements, though the Ministry of Education has said it’s proposing anti-racism and anti-discrimination training by the end of 2020.

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