The TDSB’s rollout of online learning in the spring was an unmitigated disaster: teachers flailed, parents lost it and kids suffered. Chronic squabbling between Queen’s Park and the unions is mostly to blame—and that all spells a chaotic school year ahead
It’s easy to forget now, but back in early March, before “Covid-19,” “14-day post-travel self-quarantine” and “expanded family bubble” entered the lexicon, the hot topic of discussion among Toronto parents was the ongoing brawl between the teachers’ unions and the education ministry and the likelihood of a complete work stoppage. Teachers, furious over Premier Doug Ford’s attempts to rein in the budget and cut the number of educators by the thousands, had staged province-wide protests, filling the Queen’s Park lawn to the edges with kids, parents and educators toting angry signs and chanting even angrier epithets. On social media, there was an all-out assault on Education Minister Stephen Lecce. Smooth-talking, sharply dressed, private-school educated and with no kids and scant work experience outside of politics, the 33-year-old Lecce became the avatar for everything the unions saw as wrong with the Ford government. For months, protesters had called for Lecce’s resignation (and sometimes his head: at one point, a mob crowded his car menacingly after he’d delivered a speech on anti-bullying).
As Torontonians headed out for March Break, the widespread expectation was that upon return, the strikes would become longer and more frequent. Teachers braced. Kids rejoiced. Parents, who were for the most part sympathetic to teachers, sighed. Then, the unthinkable: school was cancelled for two weeks following March Break due to the pandemic.
To many union members, the smooth-talking Lecce was the avatar of everything that was wrong with the Ford government
If ever there were a time to put aside differences and work together, this was it, but the relationship between the unions and the ministry was so toxic, so consumed with politics and posturing, that there was little chance for constructive collaboration, even with the well-being of kids at stake.
While the pandemic was a logistical nightmare for the ministry, it was a blessing in terms of optics and leverage. There are four teachers’ unions in Ontario—OSSTF (high school), ETFO (elementary), OECTA (Catholic) and AEFO (French)—and in an instant, all of them lost any public relations advantage they held. If teachers no longer had to go to work every day, how could they reasonably demand a pay increase and rally support for their preferred class sizes? To the surprise of no one, and to the delight and relief of Lecce, the unions abandoned their battle-ready postures and settled. The Catholic board announced a tentative agreement on March 12, and the other boards reached agreements in the following weeks.
The agreements were settlements in both senses of the word: teachers took what they could get. “We were prepared to fight on,” says OSSTF president Harvey Bischof, a former high school English teacher known for his blunt, direct manner. “The pandemic took away our ability to do so. Withdrawing service during the pandemic would have been pretty offensive to the public sentiment.”
Members of the Toronto chapter of ETFO were likewise embittered by having their hand forced by the pandemic. Their president at the time, Joy Lachica, is a union heavy, someone who revels in a good, drawn-out fight. Backing down went against her nature. “If Covid hadn’t hit, we would have pressed on,” she told me. She was sickened by what she saw as the ministry’s opportunism, which she likened to disaster capitalism. “Governments can use social situations like the pandemic to their advantage and resume their original intentions,” she said.
Few parents, of course, were interested in the finer points of educational grudges or who held the public-relations high ground. They simply needed to know when their kids were going back to school. The resounding answer from every possible source of authority was: “We don’t know.” For the moment, anyway, it seemed teaching was to be web-based. The ministry provided a paltry webpage with links to a grab bag of ministry and third-party resources: the ROM, the Aga Khan Museum, the National Ballet, Mathify (an online math program created by TVO) and the Toronto Zoo. There were also resources labelled for teachers that included printable handouts that aligned with the curriculum. The ministry’s other major contribution: a video entitled “Learn Like a Champion,” in which Lecce interviews Raptors guard Norm Powell about self-discipline and the need to remain hopeful in the face of adversity, then learns to shoot a basketball backwards.
Parents were bewildered: were they expected to manage their jobs and teach their kids, too? What they wanted was something resembling the classroom but online, a live video feed of teachers teaching students who could interact with each other, which in industry speak is called synchronous learning.
The entire system seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. One middle-school teacher who works in midtown and spoke on condition of anonymity wrote to parents immediately after March Break with a baffling update: “I have lessons at the ready, but I have been directed to hold off.” A supply teacher at a midtown school received the same directive. “We got a notice from both our administrative team and the union that basically said, ‘Don’t do anything,’ ” she said. She’s looking for a permanent job and asked me to withhold her name for fear of retribution from the board.
In late March, as it became clear a return to the classroom wasn’t imminent, the ministry issued guidelines for teachers—they should provide five hours of work a week for K to Grade 6, 10 hours a week for Grades 7 and 8, three hours per week per course for semestered high school students, and one and a half hours a week per course for non-semestered students. It seemed like progress, but no one said anything about synchronous learning. When it came to delivering the assignments and tasks, one union rep for an east-end school told her teachers over Zoom to take special care to avoid anything resembling excellence. “Don’t go above and beyond,” she said. “It could set the bar too high. If you come out with your A game, and later the ministry has its own ideas to add on, it would pile on more work for everyone.”
At the TDSB, officials were dealing with a separate headache: technology, or rather, a lack of it. As a public entity, the TDSB is required to ensure equity—that is, equal access to resources—for all students. As it became clear they would need to transition to remote learning, they had to make sure that all 250,000 students in the TDSB would have a functional and up-to-date computer with Internet access. That massive job fell to Manon Gardner, a 20-year veteran of the TDSB. She was promoted in 2018 to associate director of school operations and service excellence to lead the board’s multi-year strategic plan, which included integrating technology and ensuring digital proficiency. She knew that speed was critical, as kids left out of contact with their teachers would soon tune out altogether.
Among many obstacles, the first was that she had no idea how many kids were already set up with computers. So on March 29, Gardner emailed a short survey to all TDSB families to find out how many needed a computer and how many needed Internet access. For the 10,000 families who had no email listed with the TDSB, Gardner’s team either called or sent the survey by mail. In the end, about half of the board’s families responded—some 177,444—and of those, 60,000 needed a computer and 9,000 needed Wi-Fi. Gardner reviewed the board’s inventory, then the ministry brokered deals with Apple and Google, which allowed boards to buy or lease new devices, at a reduced cost, to bridge the gap. Rogers provided free wireless data until the end of June to families who needed it. A handful of school caretakers gathered the devices, and 100 staff volunteers, clad in PPE, collected and shipped them to a central distribution centre, where the computers were wiped and reprogrammed. Finally, they were packaged with an instruction sheet and delivered to households across the city. Staff worked eight-hour days, weekends included. It was a massive undertaking and an impressive outcome. But the entire process stretched into June, and by the time it was done, many kids and parents had given up on school altogether.
The issues with technology didn’t end there. Once the kids were finally set up with computers, it became apparent that a quarter of the board’s teachers didn’t know how to use the TDSB-supplied online teaching software or needed a refresher.
The ministry had for a long time positioned online learning as the way of the future. For many months, Lecce pushed for two online courses as part of a high school student’s graduation requirements. Under Ford’s model, however, that implied fewer teachers, and the union, especially the high school teachers’ union, saw online learning as an existential threat. Before the pandemic, the ministry had spent $18.6 million to license online teaching software called Brightspace to Ontario school boards. But teachers found it difficult to use. Many preferred Google Meet paired with Google Classroom, and it was ultimately up to them to choose. When the pandemic arrived, only a quarter of the board’s teachers participated in the software training courses, although many teachers told me the clinics were consistently full, which suggests the lack of tech know-how was far more widespread than we know. How many of the remaining 75 per cent were already up to date on Brightspace and Google Classroom? The board told me they didn’t have that information at the ready, but one teacher I spoke to estimated that up to 30 per cent of her colleagues were uncomfortable with technology in general.
Laura Friedmann is a filmmaker and producer and a single mother of two kids aged eight and 10. She had one computer in the house and she needed it for work. She applied for two devices and got a TDSB-issued iPad for her son and a laptop for her daughter. It wasn’t until the end of April that she received them and set up Google Classroom. Until then, there was no communication from her kids’ school unless she logged into Google Classroom on her own computer, which she squeezed in between work, preparing meals and getting the kids out for some exercise. The assignments were another headache, since she had to be involved from start to finish for both her kids. She had to find the posted assignment, print it out, explain it—teach it, effectively—then take a picture of the finished assignment and upload it. There was nothing like a class—nothing live, no phone calls. Just a few hours a week of assignments, which is what the ministry prescribed. After that, she’d guiltily plop her kids down in front of Netflix until she could take them out for some fresh air. She felt she wasn’t doing anything well—work, parenting, teaching. One Monday morning, after she’d spent several long days in a row catching up on work while the kids were at her ex-husband’s for the weekend, Friedmann woke up to a house full of laundry, dirty dishes and cleaning that needed to be done. She knew homeschooling would be next. When her kids woke up and turned on the TV, she was overwhelmed with a sense of guilt, frustration and also relief. She thought, Well, I guess they’ll just do that this morning. Then she went into the bathroom, closed the door, lay down on the floor and cried.
John Dewey is considered a founding father of modern education. He was a philosopher and education reformer around the turn of the 20th century, and his ideas about pedagogy are still taught at OISE today. One of his central tenets was that the relationship between the teacher and the student is at the heart of the learning experience, and that a teacher’s job is to engage students as opposed to simply treating them as receptacles of information.
It’s not a revolutionary idea. Today’s teachers know that children do best when kids and teachers interact directly, when there is a two-way flow of information. Were Dewey advising the TDSB during a lockdown, it’s safe to surmise he would have insisted on synchronous learning so kids could see their teachers, ask questions and interact with classmates.
That’s exactly what happened in the private school system, where there was widespread adoption of synchronous learning, and, despite a few reported hiccups, the transition was quick. Of course, that system was working from several advantages: with a higher average household income, private-school kids are often already equipped with home computers and Wi-Fi. The schools have fewer students and smaller classes. They have a more favourable ratio of support staff. That’s not to say online learning went perfectly in the private system. Teachers had to come to terms with having a live feed into their homes. Of course, several hours a day of synchronous classes was too much for some kids, and their parents pulled them out. But the teachers’ focus was on keeping students engaged in learning—real, live learning, face-to-face with their teachers and classmates, right from the start of lockdown. Even if students didn’t show up, their teachers were there. They took attendance, they followed up if a student missed class. School was never treated as optional. In the public system, by contrast, synchronous learning was considered an extreme proposition. One public-school teacher told me he couldn’t be online for synchronous lessons because that would require him to “be at the same place at the same time every day.” When I asked him how that differed from working in a classroom, he said he might have to help his own child with schoolwork or drive his wife to the grocery store.
Privacy was another widely espoused concern. Union leaders claimed their members were worried that having a running camera in their home exposed them to meme-making, ridicule and more. One scenario put forward by a teacher with a toddler at home: “What if my son walked into the frame while I was broadcasting and pulled his pants down?” Bischof, the president of OSSTF, told me about a synchronous high school class being Zoom-bombed with pornographic images and “absolutely vile, racist and misogynistic comments.” As if to drive the point home, one union rep cautioned her members that if they went ahead with synchronous learning and some parent complained to the Ontario College of Teachers, ETFO wouldn’t support them.
Bischof warned against live, online classes because they could be Zoom-bombed with pornographic and racist images
Jill Haythornthwaite is a supply teacher who works part time at several schools during normal times; during the pandemic, she was unemployed, and she got sick of hearing excuses from her full-time colleagues. “I can’t believe the union is screaming about privacy issues in the middle of a pandemic. Teachers are being paid to teach. They need to teach. We’ve got 30 per cent of the general population unemployed.”
A Grade 1 teacher in the east end followed her union’s advice, which was to not do synchronous lessons, because it was the only advice she had from the union regarding live lessons. “Everyone is afraid to take a step forward,” she told me, “because what if it’s the wrong step?” She tried emailing her students homework, recorded lessons and links to web resources. She also tried teaching students some French by conversing with them over the phone. Engagement was a disaster. “They’re six-year-olds,” she said. “They can’t read instructions on a website. They’re not great on the phone.” During that time, only five students submitted work regularly, and they were the kids who were already doing well in her class.
Karen Brackley has two kids, aged six and nine, at an elementary school in midtown. Both are in French immersion. Her daughter’s Grade 1 teacher loaded snippets of PowerPoint presentations, weekly, onto Google Classroom. French immersion is designed for families whose parents don’t necessarily know French. Brackley didn’t read or speak it, and her six-year-old wasn’t reading yet. Neither could understand the presentations. Brackley told the teacher as much and received a curt reply: “We do this type of thing in class, your daughter should be able to do it.” Over the course of two months, Brackley’s son’s teacher called three times for phone conversations.
“John Dewey is rolling in his grave,” says Richard Messina. He is principal of the Lab School, a private school within the University of Toronto that serves as a laboratory for learning about child development. “In our survival mode, many teachers have needed to go backwards. Giving children the opportunity to make discoveries for themselves is so different than just telling them what the right answer is,” says Messina. “I totally understand that unions and teachers are concerned about teacher vulnerability online. But if you’re not engaged in synchronous learning experiences, then you can only be transmitting.”
The TDSB teachers who wanted to start synchronous learning on their own did so at their peril. One French-immersion teacher at an east-end school switched to synchronous right away and made herself available to chat anytime within a 12-hour window via FaceTime. She faced resentment from her colleagues and received a “cool it” message from her school’s administration, who said the teachers needed to establish a norm to avoid having one teacher go all-out when another is doing the bare minimum.
Stephanie Hammond is a teacher at Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy, an all-kindergarten school of 600 in Thorncliffe Park. The thought of not being able to connect with her students weighed heavily on her. She wanted to create an interactive website full of videos of her reading stories or discussing seasonal plants and animals; to do that, she knew she’d need to collaborate with colleagues and the school’s administration. But union rules stipulated that staff meetings are allowed only once a month and no more, and that all staff must attend. “We couldn’t wait,” says Hammond. So she and her colleagues created what they called “check-ins,” which freed them up to hold more frequent and smaller meetings. Immediately after March Break, and before receiving any direction from the ministry, they learned how to construct a website. The next week, they built it. By April 6, it was up and running. It contains links to Hammond and other teachers leading classes and activities, read-along stories in English and Farsi, and the main page displays information for income assistance and technical support. Hammond tried to make it as user-friendly as possible for five-year-olds: she put up a photo of herself so her students knew where to click without having to read her name, and she made a “Talk to Ms. Hammond” button that a child could click to easily get in touch via email. Students who could access a smartphone or a computer could begin learning right after the break. For those without access to either, Hammond called families on the phone. For families who couldn’t speak English, Hammond and her colleagues used a translation device that’s free to TDSB schools and helped the families navigate the board’s process of getting a computer.
Across the city, other teachers like Hammond developed innovative ways to engage with their students, and eventually, word of that type of behaviour reached the union bosses, two of whom were still hammering out the details of their collective agreements. On March 26, the high school teachers’ union, OSSTF, made a confounding announcement: “The individual measures some of our members have taken over the past few weeks to ensure students have the materials and resources they need is a testament to their commitment to our students. But we have asked in light of developing a province-wide plan…that they be mindful not to implement anything that could run contrary to direction from their school board or forthcoming from our work with the ministry.” When I asked Bischof why they didn’t put politics aside and greenlight synchronous learning as soon as possible, he denied that politics played any role and then blamed the ministry for the delays.
After a month and a half of leaving the teaching mostly to parents, finally, on May 1, the TDSB sought feedback via an online survey to parents. What was working and what wasn’t? What kind of support did parents need? The results were no surprise. Some 53 per cent of the 39,000 respondents expressed a desire for more direct contact or instruction from teachers, either by phone or online.
School trustees then unanimously passed a motion for more synchronous learning. But it would be another three weeks—May 27, a full two months after schools closed—before the TDSB made it official. “Refined Expectations for Remote Learning: A Guide for Teachers and Designated Early Childhood Educators” was a nine-page document that recommended educators meet synchronously with their students online or on the phone for a minimum of two 15-minute periods per week.
Karen Brackley was relieved, happy that her son would be able to engage with his teacher. And that did happen—two 15-minute sessions per week, almost to the second. “The bare minimum,” Brackley said. She and her husband ended up hiring private tutors. The experience made her want to pull her kids out of the TDSB altogether, and it worsened her impression of the education system in general. She says she wasn’t alone. “I spoke to a few parents who came from other countries—Bulgaria, Turkey, Italy, France, Russia, Japan. They said our public schooling is very weak.”
The TDSB is weak, stretched thin after decades of underfunding. Over half its schools are more than 60 years old, with a $4-billion maintenance backlog—roofing issues, heating and cooling problems, foundation problems. Schools are also dealing with an insufficient supply of computers, bathrooms with ancient, unusable soap dispensers, and primary classrooms without sinks. Classrooms are crowded. And the board is constantly pleading for more money. Those problems have existed since at least 1997, when former premier Mike Harris, in an attempt to slay a massive provincial debt, legislated changes that placed education-related revenue under control of the province rather than the individual boards, who can no longer directly levy taxpayers—via property tax—to raise the money they need. As a result, the TDSB is beholden to the ministry for its funding, which it receives in grants, and the ministry leverages that power to extract what it wants from the board. Harris knew there could be an accountability problem with his model, so he pledged a public review of the formula every five years. The last one was 18 years ago. The formula is decades out of date and shortchanges the TDSB by $228 annually per high school student and $174 per elementary student. No government has fixed it. The revenue stream is too good to give up.
One teacher told me he couldn’t teach online because it required him to be at the same place at the same time every day
It took nearly two months for teachers to start synchronous learning en masse. But by that time, many students had given up on school entirely. How many is hard to tell. There was no directive from the ministry or the board or various administrations to keep track of, well, anything: how much time teachers spent teaching, or which kids were participating and for how long.
John Malloy, the TDSB’s outgoing director of education, told me it would be “very inappropriate” to keep track of how much time teachers were spending with students on synchronous learning because it would demonstrate a lack of confidence in them. “I trust our teachers,” Malloy told me. “I believe they care about kids and want to do a good job.” The board expected teachers to connect with students twice a week and respond to parents’ inquiries in a timely way, but Malloy felt it wasn’t the board’s job to enforce those expectations. “Monitoring is more effective when parent, teacher and principal connect and they work through it. Not because we set up a dynamic where we can say, ‘Teacher, you haven’t been online enough this week.’ That’s not what we would do in a classroom.”
The unions did try to figure out engagement rates: at the end of March, during a call between the OSSTF and the ministry, the OSSTF requested data about the number of students who engaged in remote learning versus students who didn’t. Effectively, they wanted the dropout rate. Nancy Naylor, the deputy minister, agreed to “take it back” to Lecce. The ministry claims it did ask school boards to gather information, but as of August, no one seemed to have that information on hand. Harvey Bischof, president of OSSTF, suspects they didn’t gather it. “If true, that’s absolutely negligent,” he says.”
And as kids were opting out, many school boards decreed that any work turned in during the lockdown couldn’t lower a student’s grades, which sapped teachers of much of their authority. One Grade 8 teacher told me that pandemic or not, his students understood their marks “didn’t really count until they were older,” which left room for those who were happy with their marks to essentially tune out. At another midtown school, an eighth-grader said “hardly any” of her classmates were turning in work. By June, in a Grade 1 French-immersion class near the Danforth, only five out of 19 students submitted work. By the end of the semester, five out of 25 Grade 11 kids in one class at an east-end school were handing in half-hearted assignments, and even fewer were attending the 15-minute Google Meet sessions, when the teachers bothered to hold them.
With no accountability to the board for what was the closest thing to attendance during remote learning, with overwhelmed parents unable to effectively monitor their kids’ schoolwork, and students guaranteed to get no worse than their pre–March Break grades, there was no incentive to do school work. Students could disappear from lessons altogether. Also, teachers lost out on crucial information—which schools had more engagement, and what they did to get it—that could help them develop best practices for the fall. Halfway through July, teachers I spoke to reported no follow-up from the ministry or the TDSB and no opportunity to provide feedback to inform their plans for September.
The response to pandemic schooling was, in a word, disastrous—for kids, for parents, for the thousands of businesses that suffered when parents had to devote their working hours to teaching rather than working. Some families were forced to choose between staying employed and tending to their kids, and many chose the latter. And often, in households with a mom and a dad, the one to stop working was mom. As we head into the fall, many moms are postponing their return to work. According to a study published in July, 32 per cent of Canadian women who lost their jobs between February and June were not actively seeking work.
Kids, of course, were affected most of all, detached from daily interaction, from advancing their skills in reading, writing and math, from developing social skills, and so much more. The impact hurts some kids more than others. Laura Friedmann, the single mom who was reduced to tears when faced with the choice of either teaching her kids or doing her day job, was never contacted by her kids’ teachers to arrange synchronous learning. She marvelled at what some double-income households were doing to fill the education gap. “I was left flying by the seat of my pants and watching what other amazing families were doing on Instagram,” she recalls. When faced with a choice between making the rent or homeschooling, the latter eventually lost out.
“A lot of families just gave up on online learning,” says Ingrid Palmer, who works at a child development centre. Palmer also co-chairs the Inner City Community Advisory Committee, which advises the TDSB on high-need schools that receive extra funding so they can provide free meals to students, additional staff and training, and on-site medical services. Through work, she meets many families with children who are struggling with some stark realities—including kids with special needs who have lost their school-issued supports. Palmer, a mother of three, experienced that struggle firsthand. Her 13-year-old son is on the autism spectrum, and during normal times, the TDSB assigns him a Chromebook to facilitate his in-class learning. Early in the lockdown, his teacher called to say the family would receive that computer, but it never arrived. It’s likely it was scooped up when the board collected school computers for redistribution. Palmer’s son normally gets good grades. She gave him the family PC when she wasn’t working remotely, but without his own computer or the routine of school, he lost motivation. He soon disengaged from school completely.
In her professional role, during the height of the lockdown, Palmer advised families who couldn’t juggle it all to opt out of school altogether. It was only a few months of school, and their mental health was more important than the three Rs. But in the event that there’s a second wave in the fall, she doesn’t see opting out as a viable strategy. “We need to have a better plan or these kids will be left behind. We can’t drop the ball again,” she says.
Educating kids during a pandemic—in class or online—is a challenge unlike any other. To make TDSB classrooms safe will require creativity and nimbleness. Sudden outbreaks of Covid-19 or a second wave might force kids back home. If that happens, teachers need to be empowered to teach remotely, supported with the resources to be effective, and the whole thing should be monitored carefully by the board and the ministry. That kind of success is built on trust, goodwill, innovation, flexibility and great communication—none of which were on display during the spring. It will also require increased autonomy for the boards, which remain financially beholden to the ministry. Unfortunately, the squabbling has continued over the return-to-school plan, suggesting that the chaos the TDSB experienced in spring will persist into the fall. For students, that could mean substandard education, or even no education at all.
This story appears in the September 2020 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.
A previous version of this story misidentified Ingrid Palmer’s marital status. She is married. Our apologies for the error.