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David Hunt CardusAs Ontario’s public schools struggle to accommodate students in a new school year amid what could be a fourth wave of COVID-19, what can the provincial government learn from the last 17 months?

For starters, the government needs to accept that huge, industrial-scale schools (typical in the public system) are pretty weak at responding to crises like a pandemic.  Remember how long it took for the government and teachers’ unions to agree on re-opening schools last spring?

Rather than continuing with such weaknesses, Canadian education expert Paul Bennett argues public school systems need to “completely rethink education governance … from the schools up.” He calls for “humanizing” education, where students come first in small – 250 to 300 student – schools, where a “family-centric approach” genuinely embraces parent engagement.

Such human-scale schools exist in Ontario, independent of the public system, and there’s much that all schools can learn from them as we navigate the uncertainties of this new school year.

A Cardus study of independent schools finds that through multiple lockdowns they quickly and nimbly responded to local circumstances and unique student needs. They ensured education was responsive and uninterrupted, despite the immense challenges of the pandemic and ever-changing government orders.

Seventy percent surveyed independent schools either maintained or increased special education support for their students.

Click here to downloadEighty-nine percent of these schools went over and above provincial or regional COVID regulations (for example, regularly sanitizing shared materials), while 84 percent asked staff to wear personal protective equipment that exceeded provincial or regional requirements.

Almost all these schools had regular email contact with families, 43 percent had regular phone contact with families, and almost one-third sent written notes and letters regularly to families.

Over 75 percent of surveyed schools arranged for delivery or pickup of physical learning materials to students from kindergarten to Grade 6.

In the first stretch of COVID, 84 percent of surveyed independent schools missed only three days or less of instruction, and most exceeded the suggested instructional hours per week published by the Ontario Ministry of Education. Meanwhile, little formal education took place in publicly-funded schools from March through September 2020.

The COVID experience has revealed that schools need to be more flexible and responsive. Independent schools have proven they are.

Should we expect this of public schools?

You’d think. Families need flexibility, especially under the uncertain shadow of COVID. Not to mention, Ontarians pay over $15,000 per student in public schools. (At that price, expectations ought to be high!)

But, realistically, can we expect public schools to nimbly accommodate ever-changing and diverse needs?

Unfortunately, the top-down system is by its nature distant and unresponsive to those it claims to serve. You can’t tinker your way to utopia in a structurally inefficient, centrally-organized iron cage.

Independent schools should be encouraged, funded in Ontario by Doug Sikkema and Beth Green

The straitjacket system is the issue.

So, although true, it’s not entirely fair to say that Ontario independent schools aced the stress-test of COVID schooling, while public schools flunked out. Teachers, parents, students, principals and the many others involved in both spaces were – and continue to be – true heroes through the pandemic. But while one set of heroes was limited by a system designed to resist change, the other was free to innovate on the fly.

In the words of Ontario’s foremost education-policy scholar, Derek Allison, independent and public schools are not merely different types of schools or even different sectors, but entirely different species.

So what can be done?

Transform the system’s underlying assumptions and conditions.

Rather than engineer better schools, let’s garden better schools. Let’s allow self-organizing communities to create tailored alternatives on a level playing field with government-run schools, by funding students not systems.

We should seek to cultivate an educational system in which the government provides a structure that creates and supports space for families to educate their children in ways they deem best.

Let’s reorient how we approach schooling from industrial to human-scale education.

David Hunt is education director at the think-tank Cardus.

David is a Troy Media contributor. For interview requests, click here.

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