OCDSB: Plan for a better 2021-22 secondary school year

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Please read the message below, and, if you agree, sign this petition asking the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) to authentically engage with students and parents and work to develop an approach to secondary schools for the 2021-22 that integrates academic, mental health and social considerations, as well as meeting health guidelines. Post this link and share with others as well!

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) recently sent out a survey to students, parents and teachers about the current school experience, to “build on what we have heard so far and plan for the next school year”. Tens of thousands of children and adolescents poured their hearts out through this survey, expressing their frustration, depression, anger and sadness, and their struggles with getting through the school year in the current format. So concerning were the comments that at Nepean High School, the school even sent out an email in response with a list of support resources. I clearly saw my concerns echoed over and over again in the parents’ responses. The top comments also reflected my own: the quadmester cohort system, with eight hours a week in-class and roughly 26 online, is not working. The courses are too compressed and rushed to allow for optimal learning. The one course a week model, which does not allow time to absorb the material for each course nor to get help when needed, further exacerbates this issue. It may uphold health guidelines, but there seem to be no academic benefits and many drawbacks. Having kids sit in a classroom wearing a mask for four hours twice a week learning math, and spending the rest of the 32.5 school hours alone at a computer also studying math, is not an adequate way to learn math, science or any other subject for that matter. This is not even considering the huge toll this approach is taking on teachers, who are no doubt physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted.

Countless adolescents are suffering from stress, anxiety attacks and extreme depression. I was alarmed and heartbroken to read numerous survey responses talking about children wondering about the point of living. My youngest daughter, who is in elementary school and attending school all day, every day, is doing well. My older daughters, who are both in high school, are not. High-achieving students who usually enjoy school, and who regularly participate in sports and clubs, they are now enduring the year, counting down the days until the summer, and hoping to go back to normal school in the fall.

After the survey wrapped up at midnight, on Friday, February 26th, I assumed this would be the start of an in-depth planning and engagement process over the next few months, as the OCDSB figured out how best to move forward. Apparently, though, staff were up all night diligently working on an approach. At 9:02 the next morning, an email magically appeared in my inbox! I called my daughters over and read the cheery title aloud: “September 2021: We’re Ready to Welcome All Students Back to the Classroom “. I eagerly went through the email, only to realize that the OCDSB is currently planning to do…exactly the same thing as this year?!

Yes, the school board announced that it would be continuing with the current structure, with a vague reference to “hoping to be able to incrementally resume more regular activities and operations, subject to health guidelines”. And with that, my children’s hopes for a better 2021-22 school year vanished.

The school board can be forgiven for the issues in spring 2020. School was generally a disaster, but there had been no time for the OCDSB to prepare. There were then five months to get ready for the 2020-21 school year, with a range of scenarios based on the evolving COVID situation. One can only assume that the current model was put in place with the best of intentions. However, students have now been in this structure for seven months and you have heard directly from them that it is failing. So how can you in good conscience plan for this same model and why are you not engaging with those involved? There is also the question of timing. Why send out this fully-formed plan now, six months before the next school year, in the midst of a constantly evolving environment? In the short time since this approach was posted, two additional vaccines have been approved for use in Canada and the vaccine schedule is ramping up accordingly. 

Do the research, do the analysis, be innovative, be empathetic, engage authentically and find a model that works. For inspiration, look outside the region if needed. This is something we are wrestling with at the global level. What has proven effective elsewhere that could be applied to our school district?

There must be a secondary school model that not only integrates public health guidelines, but also academic and mental health considerations. The primary/elementary model has proven that theory. If cohorts are necessary, have one group in the morning and another in the afternoon, with a break in the middle, along with a rule that students need to sanitize their chairs and desks upon arrival and departure.

You have the resources - a 2020-2021 operating budget of over $1 billion with an additional $5.4 million to support COVID measures. You have the mandate - presumably planning for the new school year is a top priority. You have the time – it has been a year and you have six more months. You have the responsibility - only you can improve the situation. Please prove that you also have the will and the desire to develop and implement an effective approach, enabling students to start the new school year with hope, and not despair.