Normal will not be on tap when students return to class this September. Distancing, masks and other safety measures will remain in place as we continue to deal with the pandemic. Photo courtesy TCDSB

Nothing about this year will be normal

By  JOHN KOSTOFF, Catholic Register Special
  • August 26, 2021

Anyone who believes this coming school year will be normal is kidding themselves or is a politician preparing for an election.

The reality is that as our school communities return this September, they are fatigued, worried, anxious and uncertain about what the upcoming school year holds. Many parents may opt to remain safe and access online learning as a means of instruction, not because there is any love for it, but rather it is one more level of protection for their children from the virus, the variants and from those not vaccinated. Others will send their children to school in the hope that whatever measures are in place will help stem the tide of the virus.

The conflicting information is difficult to understand. Despite calls from various science tables for smaller classes and less exposure in classrooms, that hasn’t happened. But to give the Ontario government credit, it has announced the funding of filtering devices for schools. The conditions of many buildings are so deteriorated that any central air system is totally inadequate.

What parents and teachers will ask when they return in September is what has been done to create a safe environment? While governments may tout the return to extracurricular experiences, what is often not mentioned is that these activities are at the discretion of the teacher, who give of their time to lead these activities. To be sure, teachers and parents as well as students will be testing out the safety precautions before joining in.

Add to this the lack of clarity over what a school should do if an outbreak occurs. The threshold required to close a school and pivot to online learning remains vague and certainly the vaccination issues will not be going away this year in our schools.

Online learning that has not only taxed our children but educators as well has become a poor cousin to the classroom experience. While there is a place for e-learning, it is best left optional, attached to the learning style of the student, with courses developed, taught and evaluated by Catholic providers on an optional basis.

Online learning will never be a significant part of secondary students’ programming and will always appeal only to unique cases. The Catholic community will have to match its claim for unique curriculum programming by developing more courses for those who opt for this form of learning. To be sure, e-learning is both a constitutional issue for the Catholic community and a pedagogical issue.

Into this uncertainty, the Catholic community has had a summer of profound shame with the ongoing revelations of actions that took place in residential schools. Let’s be clear, these schools were neither Catholic nor schools. The behaviour of many who ran or taught in these institutions only further saddens this situation. This is not just a devastating indictment for our Catholic community, but also for us as a nation.

Yet Catholic education is in a unique place to provide leadership with our First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. First, by deep and severe listening to the voices of the victims of this system. Then by working with our diverse communities to ensure we will understand and go forward while not negating our past or trying to rationalize the evil that was perpetrated in the name of Jesus.

We can begin by ensuring that curriculum, particularly in Arts and Social Science and English classes, takes advantage of the course outlines that allow for students to concentrate on themes found within our First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. A number of Catholic school boards that have made it their mission to ensure meaningful relationships with our Indigenous communities are witnessed in curriculum, school and board policies.

School boards that do not have First Nation trustees may wish to review ways to incorporate the voices of these communities into their governance and curriculum to ensure they are part of the planning process.

We may also want to address the concerns often expressed that our school libraries and resource centres don’t go far enough to reflect in their collections the many writers, themes and teachings of our First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures.

The Ministry of Education may wish to absorb the fee for teachers who take additional courses in Aboriginal education. Teachers volunteer their time for this deep learning and the ministry could ensure that tuition is not a factor in creating more responsive classrooms.

We may want to make it a common practice in all of our churches prior to the beginning of celebrations to acknowledge the traditional land of the Indigenous people that our churches are on.

Adding to this mix, Pope Francis calls us to be better stewards of our environment. This summer has witnessed great devastation linked to the reality of global warming. Catholic schools must be beacons in the area of environmental stewardship, evolving from our faith commitment as Catholics. Our students need to see in their curriculum and in the practices of their schools and boards a real desire to match our words of faith with action.

Let us hope that in the area of the pandemic response and the issue of Indigenous education and environmental stewardship, we listen to the voices of those closest to the events. On all of these issues we need to get it right.

Add to these demands a new Religion Grade Program, a new mathematics curriculum, a de-streamed Grade 9 and the regular demands of education, of faith development, of socialization, local board actions and you can see this is no normal year for Catholic education.

The words of J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of The Ring best express this school year that is about to unfold:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

(Kostoff, executive director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association, is the co-author of One Home at a Time, and contributor to the recently published book Looking to the Laity, both published by Novalis.)

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