As some of Ontario’s largest school boards scramble to accommodate a mass migration to remote learning, an analysis by The Globe and Mail shows families living in more racialized neighbourhoods are less likely to send their children back into the classroom.
The Globe analyzed the percentage of remote learners for hundreds of schools across the Greater Toronto Area, identifying patterns related to income, race, density of housing and COVID-19 cases. The data reveals regional and neighbourhood differences, suggesting the government’s back-to-school approach of offering a choice between online learning and in-class instruction could be forcing people with the fewest resources into unfamiliar learning environments.
“The numbers of parents opting for online due to concerns about the back-to-school plan is understandable to protect their child, but the potential impact on educational inequities between in-school and out-of-school learning for students is deeply concerning,” said Carol Campbell, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She added that early evidence indicates the students with the most negative experiences of remote learning in the spring were students living in low income households, students with special education needs and those learning the English language.
The four boards analyzed by the Globe – Toronto District, Peel, York Region and Hamilton-Wentworth – represent more than a quarter of the student population in the province. Ontario’s approach is similar to Alberta’s, while the B.C. government has allowed boards to offer the remote learning option to families.
The Globe’s analysis revealed that when it comes to the return to the classroom, 78 per cent of families in Toronto’s high-income neighbourhoods chose to send their children to the classroom compared with 64 per cent of families in low-income neighbourhoods. Similarly, more than 80 per cent of families in Toronto neighbourhoods with a low-racialized population opted for in-class learning, and only 60 per cent of families who live in high-racialized neighbourhoods did the same.
The Globe’s analysis divided neighbourhoods into four quarters, respectively, based on their median household income and percentage of visible minorities in the neighbourhood. The demographic and economic information was based on the 2016 census.
Kwame McKenzie, chief executive of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto think-tank, said family decisions are often influenced by neighbours and friends.
“Complex social trends can be less complex than we think because people are connected," Dr. McKenzie said. “Yes, there are the stats [on COVID-19] but do not underestimate the importance of social connections. We look and see what other people are doing and talk to people before we make decisions."
At Crescent Town Elementary School in east Toronto, about half of students have opted for online learning this year. The school is in the Taylor-Massey neighbourhood, which is low-income and has a medium-to-high visible minority presence. About 77 per cent of residents live in apartment buildings that are more than five-storeys tall, which Razia Rashed, a parent who sits on Crescent Town’s school council, said is a major contributing factor. Living in a dense neighbourhood has made families nervous, she said: they’re worried about community transmission, especially if they have to ride the elevator twice daily to take their children to and from school.
Much of the neighbourhood is composed of immigrants from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and Ms. Rashed said many parents in the community have more closely followed news and stories from relatives in their countries of origin, rather than domestically, about the toll COVID-19 has taken (the worst outbreaks in South Asia have been in India and Bangladesh).
“How it is back home matters,” Ms. Rashed said.
In Toronto, online learners are also over-represented in low income neighbourhoods, in contrast to Brampton – a hot spot for COVID-19 and one of the country’s most diverse cities – where high income neighbourhoods have the lowest rates of in-class learning. Many parents are working from home and are opting to keep their children there as well. Brad Teeter, the principal of Eldorado Public School in Brampton, said students also live in multi-generational homes with elderly grandparents who are more vulnerable to infection.
His school, part of the Peel District School Board, is in a high-income neighbourhood with a large East Indian population and just over 40 per cent of students have opted for virtual learning.
In his conversations with families, Mr. Teeter lets them know about the health and safety measures in his school, and he knows parents are wrestling with difficult decisions. The Peel board has delayed the start of its live online school to the week of Sept. 21 after seeing enrolment jump to 64,000 students, an increase of more than 10,000 in the past week.
“We would love to see every kid in the building … [but] there’s still, I think, a lot of COVID fears that are happening and parents are making decisions in the best interests of their families and safety for the kids and each member of the family,” Mr. Teeter said.
Satinder Gill, whose three children attend school in Brampton, said the decision to have them learn online was difficult. She and her husband did not want to compromise the health of her in-laws, who live with relatives next door, or her parents living close by. In her Punjabi Indian culture, she said that the “extended family plays a very big role.
“Our kids are exposed to many people in the family and we love that about our culture. That makes these types of decisions very difficult to make,” Ms. Gill said.
Sonia Reid, whose daughter attends Heart Lake Secondary School, also in Brampton, said the family’s plans called for her daughter to attend school in-person, but then Ms. Reid grew worried as she watched people in her area become less cautious, coupled with a rise in COVID-19 cases. She said that among her group of friends, only one has decided to send their child into the classroom.
“All those little things, and watching the numbers go up, I definitely knew that starting in September, I had to switch her to completely online,” Ms. Reid said.
Overall, a significant portion of Ontario students are not returning to the classroom. That number is most stark in Brampton, where only 56 per cent of elementary students will be in school, compared with Hamilton where 83 per cent of elementary children will learn in classrooms. In Toronto, meanwhile, preliminary data showed that 69 per cent of elementary children and 75 per cent of high school students are returning to the classroom. The Toronto and Peel boards have said this week that thousands of families have been switching to online learning in recent days amid rising COVID-19 rates.
In Ontario, families have been given a choice between in-person and virtual learning. Alberta school districts, too, have offered families an online option. The B.C. government said school districts have flexibility to provide remote learning options, but there is confusion among parents and school officials as to what that means. In Montreal, school districts did not provide a school-by-school enrolment breakdown of online and in-class learning. Online options in Quebec are only for children with medical exemptions and those forced to stay home because of illness or quarantine. The English school board said it had given about 400 medical exemptions that allow children to receive online learning among 19,600 students. The Centre de services scolaire de Montréal has 363 students online among its 77,500 students.
With reports from Dakshana Bascaramurty in Toronto and Les Perreaux in Montreal.
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