As teachers and educators, we join our colleagues in the child health care community in calling for the Ontario government to immediately prioritize a safe return to in-person learning. We are witnessing the unintended damage being done to the social, emotional, and cognitive well-being and development of elementary-school-aged children. Children are an immensely vulnerable sector in our society – completely dependent on the decision-making of adults. And yet every day, as plans are being made to open patios and golf courses, teachers and parents across Ontario witness the needs of children being unmet.
Opening schools safely should be Ontario’s highest priority. We know firsthand that online learning is not an acceptable alternative and that in-person learning in the remaining weeks of school would begin to repair the damage caused to children. More than ever, children need the supports, relationships, comfort, care and safety that schools provide. Every day that schools can be open would make a difference.
We urge the government to explore every possible solution – such as enhanced testing and masking, staggered schedules, support for utilizing outdoor spaces – and dedicate every resource necessary to keep children and teachers safe. Children deserve the best learning environments we can provide them, and online learning is far below the best we can do.
Children live in a 3-dimensional world and need to be able to practice, explore and master skills in a physical setting. Young children learn with their hands, minds, and bodies, through integrated play and deep engagement with materials, peers, and teachers. Older children need to collaborate, take on meaningful projects, and develop their independence in the companionship of peers and with the real-life guidance of teachers. Online learning denies children this fundamental aspect of their development.
Children experience diverse relationships in a school community: friends, peers, older children they look up to, younger children they mentor and encourage. They are supported by a network of caring adults – from the school office administrator to the Phys Ed teacher – who each know that child in a different way. Some children rely on schools for meal programs, some children rely on schools for physical activity, and some children rely on schools as a safe space. Online learning removes this vital web, resulting in experiences of isolation, and loneliness.
A classroom supports many ways for children to access information, communicate their understanding, and contribute to the classroom community. Online learning drastically narrows those options and widens the gap between learners. In schools, teachers often support their students through one-on-one conversations, sensitively, privately and gently. Online learning seriously compromises individualized approaches – both formal and informal – that allow a diversity of learners to feel engaged, face challenges, and build their potential.
The children in our society are whole human beings, not just students, or vessels for receiving curriculum. Children thrive when they feel known as individuals with diverse interests, skills, passions, emotions, challenges, and identities. Engaging and supporting a child as a full human being depends on close connection, ongoing observation, and a fostered trusting relationship. This is impossible through a screen.
Children have lost so much in this pandemic. But these are not just losses children are experiencing, they are costs – costs we are asking children to bear for society’s benefit – costs to their learning, to their connectivity, to their physical and mental well-being. Ultimately, these costs will fall on us all.
The best interests of children must be our highest priority. It is their right and our responsibility. Online learning simply does not meet children’s needs. We urge the Ontario Government to do all that is necessary to open our schools and keep them open.