New [US] Data Highlight Disparities In Students Learning In Person

Useful study. Wonder how it compares in Canada (or at least in the largest provinces):

The U.S. Education Department has released the first in a series of school surveys intended to provide a national view of learning during the pandemic. It reveals that the percentage of students who are still attending school virtually may be higher than previously understood.

As of January and early February of this year, 44% of elementary students and 48% of middle school students in the survey remained fully remote. And the survey found large differences by race: 69% of Asian, 58% of Black and 57% of Hispanic fourth graders were learning entirely remotely, while just 27% of White students were.

Conversely, nearly half of white fourth-graders were learning full-time in person, compared with just 15% of Asian, 28% of Black and 33% of Hispanic fourth-graders. The remainder had hybrid schedules.

This disparity may be partly driven by where students live. City schools, the survey found, are less likely than rural schools to offer full-time, in-person classes. Full-time, in-person schooling dominated in the South and the Midwest, and was much less common in the West and Northeast.

The racial and ethnic gaps may also be driven in part by which families are choosing to stay remote, even where some in-person learning is offered. Three out of 4 districts around the country were offering some in-person learning as of January, the report says, with full-time, in person learning more common than hybrid schedules.

The Education Department created the survey in response to an executive action signed by President Biden on his first full day in office. To obtain results quickly, researchers used the existing infrastructure of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the testing program also known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

More than a year after schools around the country first switched to virtual learning, this is the first attempt at federal data collection on the progress of school reopening. Although the Trump administration pushed for school reopening, it made no such efforts. “I’m not sure there’s a role at the department to collect and compile that research,” former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said last October.

This survey covers a nationally representative sample of around 7,000 schools, half of which were educating fourth-graders and the other half educating eighth-graders (those being grades included in The Nation’s Report Card testing).

New results will be reported monthly through at least July. The results are intended to provide context for The Nation’s Report Card in 2022, and state tests, which the Biden administration is requiring this year.

The survey is also intended to pinpoint inequities. For example, among the other key findings: More than 4 in 10 districts said they were giving priority to students with disabilities for in-person instruction. Yet in practice, 39% of elementary students with disabilities remained remote, compared with 44% overall. Many families of students with disabilities have said that their children receive limited benefit from virtual learning.

Finally, this pilot survey asked how many hours of live video instruction students were receiving when learning remotely. The majority of schools said they are offering more than three hours per day. But 10% of eighth-graders, and 5% of fourth-graders, are getting no live instruction at all when learning remotely. They may be working on other activities such as homework packets, or software, or watching pre-recorded lessons.

The response rate to this nationally representative survey varied around the country and was lowest in the Northeast. Notably, out of 27 large urban districts targeted in the survey, 16 declined to participate.

Previously, NPR has been citing school reopening data provided by an organization called Burbio. Burbio scrapes school district websites to find out whether school is being offered hybrid, full-time or all-virtual. Their data set — 1,200 school districts representing 35,000 schools and nearly half of the U.S. school population, is larger than that covered in this federal survey.

Source: New Data Highlight Disparities In Students Learning In Person

Fear and discomfort shouldn’t block anti-racism efforts in schools

Some interesting practical suggestions towards greater inclusivity:

In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, then-deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs is quoted for suggesting that his goal was to “get rid of the Indian problem.” Scott’s solution was to expand the residential school system forcing Indigenous people to assimilate. One hundred years later, the legacy of residential schools continues to impact Canada’s current school systems. Research shows that Indigenous children across the country continue to experience systemic racism by their peers, teachers and the larger community. Needless to say, shaming and assimilation persist today.

Over the past 16 years, I’ve worked in education in various roles as a teacher, board lead, university course director and now as a vice-principal. Throughout this time, I’ve noted many advancements in championing Indigenous education and narrowing the Indigenous achievement gap by increasing graduation rates. But time and time again, I’ve also noticed deep discomfort and fear among educators when it comes to addressing anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism in schools.

“I don’t feel comfortable!”

For the most part, educators want to have a positive effect on their students. But when asked to participate in creating that change by addressing racism, I’ve witnessed some who squirm and say they prefer not to “rock the boat.” For systemic racism to be dismantled in Canadian schools, however, we need to address the discomfort and fear that some educators feel in disrupting anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism in schools.

For example, during a staff meeting at a Scarborough school where I previously worked, an administrator asked staff members how racism was being spread at school. Was it the curriculum? Our choices of books? The way we speak to students? I thought these were excellent questions to ask to encourage self-reflection and to prompt discussion about potential areas for improvement. In response, however, there was a long silence.

By comparison, I asked colleagues at different schools if race-related conversations were also happening during their staff meetings. For example, looking at race-based data and examining in-school practices that might hinder Black and Indigenous students. Most said yes, but added that they were led largely by Indigenous, Black and racialized educators.

Why are some white educators so uncomfortable? Perhaps it’s fear that openly and honestly engaging in these critical conversations may result in being labelled “racist” or “insensitive.” That said, many racialized and white educators do want to speak up. They are on a journey towards unpacking their racist ideologies or internalized oppression – but they don’t know how and where to begin or what language to use. Sometimes, it helps if a critical friend engages them in discussion. But this responsibility usually falls on Indigenous, Black and racialized people, which is problematic because the work of becoming anti-racist is a personal journey that doesn’t involve others.

“ I do not feel safe”

This makes me wonder what the union’s role is in protecting racialized teachers from microaggressions and unintentionally or intentionally racist remarks. Whose safety matters when having these discussions? What role will the union play in dismantling racism at Canadian schools?I’ve witnessed colleagues respectfully correcting white educators for saying: “I do not think racism is that bad in our school…is it?” Unfortunately, some have complained to the teachers’ union that they “do not feel safe” or feel “attacked” whenever they’re corrected for making a racist or problematic statement.

There’s also significant discomfort among educators when it comes to using anti-racist language when teaching elementary students. I’ve consistently heard some say that children at this age have “tender minds” or are “too young” to learn, and that “we don’t want to instill fear” in them. Yet research suggests that kids begin to perceive racist ideologies from the age of two. That’s why anti-racist education shouldn’t be just one lesson or unit plan. Instead, it needs to be embedded in everyday practices, starting from kindergarten. And if a student uses the term “racist” incorrectly, teachers should take that as a learning opportunity to address the class.

“I have good intentions!”

There is no doubt that educators have good intentions for student safety when participating in school board-wide events, such as Orange Shirt Day, Remembrance Day and Treaty Week. But what happens when these events cause harm to students?

For example, the purpose of Orange Shirt Day is for educators to teach students about the cultural genocide committed against First Nations, Métis and Inuit children, so it’s an opportunity for the school community to unite in the spirit of reconciliation. Specifically, students learn that the RCMP forcefully removed Indigenous children from their families and communities, as the Canadian government’s goal was to “kill the Indian in the child.”

That’s why, on Sept. 30, they read about Phyllis, a residential school survivor from Northern Secwpemc in British Columbia. As the story goes, Phyllis’ grandmother bought her an orange shirt to wear to St. Joseph’s residential school, but when she arrived, school officials took her shirt away. As a 6-year-old, Phyllis expresses that she felt worthless and like no one cared about her.

Despite this focus on Phyllis and other Indigenous residential school survivors, though, their experiences are often decentered on Orange Shirt Day. How? I’ve seen students receive handouts with the sentence starter, “I matter because…” Students’ responses, which ranged from “I am lucky I have a safe school” to “I have a mom and a dad,” are all valid but the voices of Indigenous people are erased in the process. It’s essential that educators focus on Phyllis’ story because only then can Canadians move forward towards reconciliation. For example, educators can dive deeper into researching residential schools’ objectives, and then explain how they were wrongly informed by white supremacist ideologies.

Another board practice we need to reimagine is “spirit days” like Crazy Hair Day, which can be problematic if students choose to wear an Afro, cornrows or Native long braids as a costume. Students also learn that this type of hairstyle is “crazy,” which dehumanizes Indigenous and Black people for the sake of “making school fun” or “keeping old traditions.” What’s more, Sikh and Muslim students can’t participate in these activities because some wear a turban or hijab, so they’re automatically excluded.

Educators need to understand that some school traditions promote racism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination against marginalized groups. We can no longer say, “But we’ve always done it this way” or “It’s a school tradition.” For example, hold a spirit day when students identify acts of kindness among their peers and compliment them, or wear their favourite piece of clothing and share why it’s special to them. This would enable students to participate without having to assimilate or adhere to antiquated norms.

It’s time to involve students in critically rethinking past practices and reimagining new inclusive school traditions. Educators can no longer hide behind fear when Indigenous, Black and racialized students’ lives depend on it.

Source: Fear and discomfort shouldn’t block anti-racism efforts in schools

ICYMI: Hong Kong to teach elementary students about subversion and foreign interference

Yet another sign of the Chinese regime’s crackdown on Hong Kong:

Hong Kong has unveiled controversial guidelines for schools that include teaching students as young as six about colluding with foreign forces and subversion, as part of a new national security curriculum.

Beijing imposed a security law on Hong Kong in June 2020 in response to months of often violent anti-government and anti-China protests in 2019 that put the global financial hub more firmly on an authoritarian path.

The Education Bureau’s guidelines, released late on Thursday, show that Beijing’s plans for the semi-autonomous Hong Kong go beyond quashing dissent, and aim for a societal overhaul to bring its most restive city more in line with the Communist Party-ruled mainland.

Source: Hong Kong to teach elementary students about subversion and foreign interference

Move to curtail minority-language instruction in schools signals ongoing shift in China’s cultural policy

Of note:

Like many schools in China, the Yanji City Number 6 Middle School posts its school calendar on an outside wall. On the list are the usual subjects: language and literature, math, English, biology, politics, physics, history and sports.

Missing, however, is any reference to the Korean-language instruction that once defined this place. Like many other schools in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Number 6 has long taught most courses in Korean.

Yanbian borders North Korea and counts 35 per cent of its population as ethnically Korean. But teaching Korean wasn’t just a nod to demographics or history – it was the law. For Koreans, local regulations mandated that courses could be taught in Chinese only with special permission.

Beginning this school year, that suddenly changed.

“Other than Korean class, subjects like math and science are all taught in Mandarin,” said one Korean man in Yanji. “Before, it was all taught in Korean.” A propaganda poster on the wall calls for those at the school to “build up the sense of unity of the Chinese nation.”

It “feels like the suppression of an ethnic minority – or possibly the cancellation of ethnic languages altogether,” the man said. Police closely followed a Globe and Mail reporter on a recent trip to Yanji, and The Globe is not identifying people interviewed there to shield them from retribution.

What happened in Yanji, however, was not accidental.

Last year, a commission under the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the permanent body of China’s central legislature, examined rules that mandate use of local languages and found them unconstitutional, according to a disclosure made last week. The review takes aim at language policies nearly identical to those found in Yanbian and Inner Mongolia, where fierce protests and teacher strikes erupted last fall after officials halted most Mongolian-language instruction.

It is one of the strongest indications to date that what is taking place in classrooms on the distant fringes of the country reflects a major change in Beijing’s approach to those whose language and history differ from the dominant Han culture, which makes up more than 90 per cent of the country’s population.

The constitutional review appears to form “part of a concerted effort aimed at changing national policy towards minorities,” said Changhao Wei, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and the founder of NPC Observer, a website that tracks Chinese legislative development.

The broader Chinese ambition is about “Han supremacy. It’s a racial project of domination,” said Gerald Roche, an anthropologist who specializes in language politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “They want to be at a point where they are a nation united by language.”

From the early days of Communist Party rule, China has carved out a unique place for its minority populations. Following a Soviet model, it officially recognized 56 nationalities, categorizing people from the dominant Han to the Hezhe, which in 1964 numbered just 718 people. The Chinese Constitution guaranteed ethnic groups “the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own traditions and customs.”

Though chairman Mao Zedong ultimately suppressed some ethnic policies, since 1949, China’s 55 minority groups have received benefits including government-backed language support, advantages in hiring and education and exemptions from the strictest family-planning policies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, has overseen major changes. Across China, cities and provinces – including Yanbian – are stripping away the additional university placement exam points long awarded to ethnic minorities to improve their scores. Affirmative-action-style hiring policies are being reworked. Officials have rescinded lenient family planning policy for some minority groups, including the largely Muslim Uyghurs.

Mr. Xi has advocated the “forging of a communal consciousness of the Chinese nation,” calling for greater recognition of Chinese culture by people of all ethnic groups. Authorities must strengthen Chinese language education, emphasize patriotic education and “bury the seeds of loving China in every child’s heart,” Mr. Xi said in 2019.

Late last year, Beijing for the first time appointed a Han official to lead the National Ethnic Affairs Commission – Zhu Weiqun, one of China’s most prominent voices on ethnic affairs, has argued that China’s current ethnic policies are in need of replacement, saying recognition of minorities and preferential policies toward smaller ethnic groups fractures national unity.

Banishing minority-language instruction, Chinese authorities and scholars have said, is necessary to reduce poverty and create equal workplace opportunity.

Teaching Mandarin is the best way to “improve the quality of the next generation of ethnic minorities,” said Yang Wenhui, an ethnic studies scholar at Yunnan University. “They can’t afford to always be falling behind.”

The promotion of Mandarin began in earnest in 2001, with the adoption of a national language law. By 2009, half of China’s population was deemed competent in Mandarin. By last year, 80 per cent had reached that level.

Beijing’s insistence on Mandarin education, however, has been interwoven with efforts to suppress ethnic dissent. After riots in Tibet and Xinjiang in 2008 and 2009, a “more oppressive assimilatory dynamic really emerged,” said Prof. Roche, who spent eight years living in Qinghai and working with linguistic minority groups.

In 2017, authorities in Xinjiang placed teachers in intensive Mandarin-language summer instruction. Last year, a similar program was rolled out nationwide, with authorities pledging to increase teachers’ use of “excellent Chinese language and culture.”

In Yanji, the imposition of Mandarin instruction has support within the Korean community. “I went to Korean schools. I couldn’t keep up with my classmates at all when I entered the university,” one man said. “Mandarin was too difficult.” He has placed his own child in a Chinese kindergarten. “Our mother tongue is Korean. We can speak [it] at home if we really want to,” he said. Local bookstores, too, continue to stock large quantities of Korean-language titles.

Others, however, worry what’s happening in schools is a sign their own government has turned on them.

“Our mother tongue has been removed just because we are an ethnic minority group,” a Korean woman says. “We can see from places like Tibet and Xinjiang that for a minority to become too strong isn’t a good thing these days. It feels to me like oppression.”


Why the World Should Care About Language in Inner Mongolia

Yet another example of Chinese government repression and attempts at cultural genocide:

On August 26 China passed a law to sideline teaching in the Mongolian language in the region of Inner Mongolia (also referred to as Southern Mongolia). This measure, which sparked immediate protests, will create irreparable losses not just for ethnic Mongolians, but also for many cultures around the world.

What is at stake here is not just the spoken language, but an 800-year-old script with a multicultural lineage that emanated from the golden era of the Silk Route.

Mongolian, as a language, is still widely spoken in independent Mongolia, but the “Mongolian script” was largely lost after the Russians introduced Cyrillic in the 1940s, when Stalin sought to control the country as a buffer against China. This makes the Inner Mongolians, who are currently under Chinese rule, the last custodians of the script. For academics, historians, linguists, and cultural aficionados, the Mongolian script holds the key to historical links between cultures that were forged during the Silk Route era and earlier. Understanding this connection might help people realize that this is not Mongolia’s fight alone.

For decades, China’s ongoing efforts to assimilate its minorities had it cracking down harshly on the religions, and languages of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongolians. These are all largely nomadic cultures that were propagators of multicultural exchanges at the height of the Silk Route era.

Like the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, who have been struggling against Chinese hegemony, Mongolians have been protesting since August, but punitive measures taken by the Chinese government leave Mongolians with little choice but to concede.

“This is the final blow to our culture,” said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.  “The world should know that it is not simply a language issue. This strikes at the very heart and existence of our national identity. If we lose our language we lose everything. We’ve already lost political autonomy, our nomadic way of life, and our environment. This is cultural genocide.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, in the independent state of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR), a democratic revolution in 1990 pushed for a switch from Russian Cyrillic to the old Mongolian script. That idea, however, received little interest and gained no traction. Parents saw it as a hindrance to their children’s future prospects at the time. But the recent protests in the Inner Mongolian region have made Mongolians in the MPR realize what they failed to in 1990. The significance and threat to their cultural, intellectual, and literary heritage is now being viewed through a new lens.

“Public opinion in MPR has changed drastically since China’s crackdown on Inner Mongolia,” said Otgonsuren Jargaliin, an outer Mongolian teacher, linguist, and environmental activist. “Mongolians now see the urgent need to preserve and protect this ancient script and not take it for granted. They now appreciate that 80 years of Cyrillic is not on par with 800 years of a writing that is our lineage and ancestry.”

She pointed out that as recently as last week MPR National Television was now carrying subtitles not only in Cyrillic, but also in the old Mongolian script, which was a new development.

The Mongolian Script

The story of the Mongolian script starts with Genghis Khan. In 1204 he appointed the Uyghur scholar Tatatunga to develop a unifying script after he established his empire. The new Mongolian script was adapted from an old Uyghur script.

The Uyghurs today are Turkic-speaking Muslims, descended from the Uyghur Khaganate, a nomadic kingdom in Mongolia, which was predominantly Manichaean and then later Buddhist. It lasted from 744 to 840 CE. It was while they were Manicheans that the Uyghurs adopted their script from the Sogdians. By the 16 century, however, the Uyghurs had transitioned to the Arabic script and were no longer using their own.

The Sogdians, meanwhile, were the remnant traders of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire, who capitalized on economic opportunities along the Silk Route from the fourth to ninth centuries. Like many Silk Route traders, they exported not just material goods but fashion, culture, religion, arts, and language. Their script had its roots in Aramaic.

The Uyghurs replaced the Sogdians as custodians of the script from the eighth to the beginning of the 13th century, when Genghis Khan introduced it to his new empire, the largest contiguous one the world had ever seen. As the lingua franca of the Mongolian Empire, the script was used widely connecting east with west, the Pacific to the Mediterranean.

The history of the script, therefore, offers a well documented evolution of a writing that originated from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, and traveled across time and cultures through the Silk Route. The script’s history tells us how people from vast geographical backgrounds were connected, often not out of choice, but nevertheless linked through trade and travel. It shows us how our ancestries and heritages are all interlinked and interconnected.

The indigenous nomadic tribes from different cultures, along with traders from different regions and countries, brought a broader understanding of a socio-cultural world through their free movement along the Silk Route. Unlike China’s nationalistic ideology, they were not confined to a specific religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, or geographical boundary. This was what promoted cultural connectivity and created an era of great cultural exchange.

Today China is trying to recreate its idea of a Silk Route through its “One Belt, One Road” foreign policy and economic strategy, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative. But what China fails to recognize is that the success of the original Silk Route was due to its recognition and acceptance of the many cultures it spanned and encountered. Cultural legacies were embraced and valued rather than wiped out along the way in the name of uniformity. The Belt and Road Initiative can’t replicate the success of the Silk Route if it persecutes the very people and cultures, like the Mongolians, that made the original routes last for centuries.

The irony is that, in trying to recreate the Silk Road through its nationalistic lens, China may once again end up with something that is just another “Made in China” imitation.

Source: Why the World Should Care About Language in Inner Mongolia

High anxiety: In Toronto’s immigrant-rich apartment towers, elevators and density keep many students at home

Yet another example of inequalities at work:

When the final bell rings at Thorncliffe Park Public School, Canada’s largest elementary school, dozens of children burst through the doors onto the schoolyard, immediately pulling their colourful masks below their mouths with the same relief that comes from undoing one’s top button after a big meal. In the apartments housed inside a cluster of highrises, the rest of the school population marks the end of the day more quietly, logging out of their online classrooms.

Most of those students live within a five-minute walk of the school, but their families, many of whom were deterred by the vertical commute, opted for remote learning this school year. In a survey conducted by community organizers in September, 75 per cent of parents in Thorncliffe and neighbouring highrise community Flemingdon Park – both COVID-19 hot spots – expressed worries about waiting for elevators and physical distancing on them.

Even before COVID-19 this was a struggle, and families, community leaders and teachers feared the crowding and wait might worsen without the ability to pack a dozen or more people in an elevator like they had in the past.

The school eliminated its late policy and parents were encouraged to pack lunches the night before for their children, but that still wasn’t enough to assuage fears. “I worried so much about the elevator. I couldn’t imagine them being at school on time,” said Saara Khota, who shares her two-bedroom 16th-floor apartment with her husband and four children.

She had big plans for the fall: For the first time in 13 years, she was going to go back to school to continue her education in computer science with hopes of finding work. Instead, over concerns about the elevators and her children’s abilities to wear masks properly, she signed three of her kids up for remote learning.Zoom/Pan

When school started, just 62 per cent of students returned to class at Thorncliffe Park Public School, which has a student body of 1,350. Later, even more made the switch and, this week, only about 56 per cent are registered to be in class, according to the Toronto District School Board.

It’s part of a larger trend of approximately 7,500 students across the board moving online in the weeks since school started as COVID-19 case counts have exponentially risen.

For decades, this neighbourhood has been a magnet for newcomers. Eight out of 10 residents are racialized (the majority are immigrants from South Asian countries) and the median household income is $46,595, about 30 per cent less than the city as a whole.

Toronto Public Health data show the coronavirus has disproportionately infected racialized and low-income people, who have also felt the virus’s secondary effects more acutely, logging higher rates of job losses, poverty and food-bank reliance.

School board data show families in areas with the highest COVID-19 case rates were more likely to select remote learning.

Keeping her children at home didn’t feel like a viable option for Sana Khan, a mother of two and a Pakistani immigrant.

Her children are in junior kindergarten and Grade 5 and she doesn’t feel equipped to parent and assist with their learning at home, so, with reservations, she sent them back to school.

“I’m always worried for the kids,” she said in the lobby of her building on a recent morning after school drop-off. “You don’t know who they’re coming across, who might make them sick.”

That afternoon after the pickup, she detoured to the nearby plaza after school – she needed to get groceries, but this is a common tactic neighbourhood parents use to avoid afternoon rush hour at the highrises.

A queue snaked out the door of Ms. Khan’s building until about 4:15 p.m. as one staffer played usher, managing the crowd and ensuring not too many crowded onto the elevators, while another deposited a squirt of hand sanitizer in every resident’s palm before they entered the lobby.

All the parents The Globe and Mail spoke to said they were pleasantly surprised by how smoothly things have gone with the elevators – they’ve made adjustments, as have the schools, but most importantly, far fewer students are actually leaving their buildings each day to get to school. The crowds have been so light that Ms. Khota decided to send her second eldest, who is in Grade 5, back to class this week.

Mehreen Ubaid, one of Ms. Khan’s neighbours, lives on the second floor of the building, but the elevator is still a part of her daily routine because she has a one-year-old who is usually transported by stroller. The risk of one of her three school-going children becoming infected with the coronavirus already felt high before school started: Her husband is a taxi driver.

Having arrived here from Pakistan in July, 2019, she is still learning English (she spoke to The Globe in Urdu through an interpreter), so assisting her children with anything they struggled with this school year would’ve been an impossibility.

Since the first day of school, a WhatsApp group for Thorncliffe parents who chose remote learning for their young children has lit up several times with inquiries about whether any neighbourhood teens might be available to tutor since the language barrier has left parents unable to assist their children with even simple assignments – 57.8 per cent of residents have a home language that isn’t English.

Shakhlo Sharipova, a member of that group, said the remote learners experienced a host of other problems as well. On the morning she assumed would be her daughter Khadija’s much-postponed first day of kindergarten at Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy, which is beside Thorncliffe Park Public School, she couldn’t log into the online learning platform and learned she wasn’t the only one. Each morning for weeks she was greeted with a flurry of messages in the WhatsApp group: “Were you able to get into Brightspace?” “Has class started?” “Does your child have a teacher yet?”

Certain her daughter would not be able to wear a mask on the elevator ride for the journey from her apartment down to the lobby (let alone in class all day), Ms. Sharipova thought remote learning was the best option. But once classes finally began, Khadija was distracted and disengaged, especially as her teacher navigated WiFi issues, at one point clumsily reading a book to her virtual class while holding her cellphone out so they could see the pictures.

Ms. Sharipova found herself responsible for multiple hours of teaching each day, which she knew she couldn’t keep up after accepting a job at a local pop-up COVID-19 testing site. So she decided after a few days to send her daughter back to class – risks and all (about 3,000 other students have registered to do the same within the board). She says it’s a shame so many in her community don’t feel they have a true choice when it comes to how their children will be educated. “It’s disappointing and kind of unfair, you know?” she said.


Toronto-area school board sorts online classes alphabetically, raising concerns of racial segregation

Perhaps a more neutral approach like the date of birth?

In a kindergarten virtual classroom at the York Region District School Board, half the children have the surname Wong, and two of them have the same first name.

It’s a similar story in other online classes that are filled with children sharing the same last names after the board, north of Toronto, separated its roughly 30,000 virtual learners into four areas and assigned them to classes alphabetically by surname. The board only later discovered it had inadvertently created groups that did not reflect the racially diverse nature of this part of the province.

The issue at York highlights the challenges school boards face launching virtual classes after the Ontario government let families choose between in-class learning and online instruction. Parents in a Facebook group have raised concerns about the lack of diversity and described classes in which all the students have the surname Chen or Cao. In other instances, half the class are Khans or Wongs.

Clayton La Touche, an associate director at the board, said he understood parents’ concerns but that redoing the classes in a different way would have delayed the start of the school year. It is not out of the ordinary to have more than one student in a classroom with the same surname, but he acknowledged that having an entire class is unusual.

“It is an unintended impact of the decision,” Mr. La Touche said. “However, although we certainly respect and would wish to have had mixed classes in that way, if it is a matter of mixing names versus forming classes in time to be able to have a reasonable start, in my belief it is a measured risk.

“At the end of the day, what we have is our students in front of teachers.”

At other school boards, including Peel and Toronto, an effort was made to keep virtual learners with their neighbourhood peers as much as possible, or to mix students.

One parent, whose son’s last name is Wong, said 15 of the 29 kindergarten children in his son’s York Region online class have the same surname. His classroom last year had only one other Wong out of 28 students. The parent, who lives in Markham, asked that his first name not be used to keep his child’s identity private.

The parent said it was comical when he first saw it. Then he wondered why the board was segregating and creating a lack of diversity in the class.

He hastened to add that the family likes the teacher and the class is going pretty well. It was just that he felt the whole process was not ideal.

Another parent, Michael She, who lives in Richmond Hill, said his two children’s virtual classrooms have students with various last names, but that is not the case for some of his friends. “For fairness, a lot of parents would have wished, at a minimum, for a random distribution to keep it more representative of the York Region area,” Mr. She said.

Several school boards in the Greater Toronto Area, including York, have started virtual school more slowly than in-person classes because of families switching to online learning at the last minute amid a rise in COVID-19 cases. Some students still do not have assigned teachers.

Mr. La Touche said scrapping the process because of the alphabetical listing would have further delayed the start of the school year for thousands of students. “Not to minimize the concern in any way, however, the greater interest was in ensuring that we had a successful start and as timely a start as possible,” he said.

Vidya Shah, an assistant professor in education at York University, said considering that the provincial government gave boards only about a month to organize students for in-person and virtual schooling, mistakes were inevitable.

Prof. Shah said that for some students who were perhaps the only ones with a particular surname at their regular school, being grouped by surname “can be quite honouring and create a sense of community automatically.”

“In other ways,” she added, “it goes against the very heart of public education, which is to have very diverse spaces with lots of students, with various identities that can come together and learn and take risks together.”

In non-pandemic times, class lists are typically done in collaboration with teachers and school administrators. Darren Campbell, president of the elementary teachers’ union in York Region, said many factors go into forming classes, including paying attention to the learning needs of students.

“This method [the alphabetical grouping] is not one teachers would feel creates the most successful class communities in a school,” Mr. Campbell said, adding: “It’s far from ideal.”



Ontario families living in more racialized neighbourhoods less likely to send children back into classroom, Globe analysis finds

Interesting possible explanations for a counter-intuitive effect, as I had thought that it would be those with higher socioeconomic status that would be best able to support remote learning:

As some of Ontario’s largest school boards scramble to accommodate a mass migration to remote learning, an analysis by The Globe and Mail shows families living in more racialized neighbourhoods are less likely to send their children back into the classroom.

The Globe analyzed the percentage of remote learners for hundreds of schools across the Greater Toronto Area, identifying patterns related to income, race, density of housing and COVID-19 cases. The data reveals regional and neighbourhood differences, suggesting the government’s back-to-school approach of offering a choice between online learning and in-class instruction could be forcing people with the fewest resources into unfamiliar learning environments.

“The numbers of parents opting for online due to concerns about the back-to-school plan is understandable to protect their child, but the potential impact on educational inequities between in-school and out-of-school learning for students is deeply concerning,” said Carol Campbell, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She added that early evidence indicates the students with the most negative experiences of remote learning in the spring were students living in low income households, students with special education needs and those learning the English language.

The four boards analyzed by the Globe – Toronto District, Peel, York Region and Hamilton-Wentworth – represent more than a quarter of the student population in the province. Ontario’s approach is similar to Alberta’s, while the B.C. government has allowed boards to offer the remote learning option to families.

The Globe’s analysis revealed that 78 per cent of families in Toronto’s high-income neighbourhoods chose to send their children to the classroom compared with 64 per cent of families in low-income neighbourhoods. Similarly, more than 80 per cent of families in Toronto neighbourhoods with a low-racialized population opted for in-class learning, and only 60 per cent of families who live in high-racialized neighbourhoods did the same.

The Globe’s analysis divided neighbourhoods into four quarters, respectively, based on their median household income and percentage of visible minorities in the neighbourhood. The demographic and economic information was based on the 2016 census.

Kwame McKenzie, chief executive of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto think-tank, said family decisions are often influenced by neighbours and friends.

“Complex social trends can be less complex than we think because people are connected,” Dr. McKenzie said. “Yes, there are the stats [on COVID-19] but do not underestimate the importance of social connections. We look and see what other people are doing and talk to people before we make decisions.”

At Crescent Town Elementary School in east Toronto, about half of students have opted for online learning this year. The school is in the Taylor-Massey neighbourhood, which is low-income and has a medium-to-high visible minority presence. About 77 per cent of residents live in apartment buildings that are more than five-storeys tall, which Razia Rashed, a parent who sits on Crescent Town’s school council, said is a major contributing factor. Living in a dense neighbourhood has made families nervous, she said: they’re worried about community transmission, especially if they have to ride the elevator twice daily to take their children to and from school.

Much of the neighbourhood is composed of immigrants from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and Ms. Rashed said many parents in the community have more closely followed news and stories from relatives in their countries of origin, rather than domestically, about the toll COVID-19 has taken (the worst outbreaks in South Asia have been in India and Bangladesh).

“How it is back home matters,” Ms. Rashed said.

In Toronto, online learners are also over-represented in low income neighbourhoods, in contrast to Brampton – a hot spot for COVID-19 and one of the country’s most diverse cities – where high income neighbourhoods have the lowest rates of in-class learning. Many parents are working from home and are opting to keep their children there as well. Brad Teeter, the principal of Eldorado Public School in Brampton, said students also live in multi-generational homes with elderly grandparents who are more vulnerable to infection.

His school, part of the Peel District School Board, is in a high-income neighbourhood with a large East Indian population and just over 40 per cent of students have opted for virtual learning.

In his conversations with families, Mr. Teeter lets them know about the health and safety measures in his school, and he knows parents are wrestling with difficult decisions. The Peel board has delayed the start of its live online school to the week of Sept. 21 after seeing enrolment jump to 64,000 students, an increase of more than 10,000 in the past week.

“We would love to see every kid in the building … [but] there’s still, I think, a lot of COVID fears that are happening and parents are making decisions in the best interests of their families and safety for the kids and each member of the family,” Mr. Teeter said.

Satinder Gill, whose three children attend school in Brampton, said the decision to have them learn online was difficult. She and her husband did not want to compromise the health of her in-laws, who live with relatives next door, or her parents living close by. In her Punjabi Indian culture, she said that the “extended family plays a very big role.”

“Our kids are exposed to many people in the family and we love that about our culture. That makes these types of decisions very difficult to make,” Ms. Gill said.

Sonia Reid, whose daughter attends Heart Lake Secondary School, also in Brampton, said the family’s plans called for her daughter to attend school in-person, but then Ms. Reid grew worried as she watched people in her area become less cautious, coupled with a rise in COVID-19 cases. She said that among her group of friends, only one has decided to send their child into the classroom.

“All those little things, and watching the numbers go up, I definitely knew that starting in September, I had to switch her to completely online,” Ms. Reid said.

Overall, a significant portion of Ontario students are not returning to the classroom. That number is most stark in Brampton, where only 56 per cent of elementary students will be in school, compared with Hamilton where 83 per cent of elementary children will learn in classrooms. In Toronto, meanwhile, preliminary data showed that 69 per cent of elementary children and 75 per cent of high school students are returning to the classroom. The Toronto and Peel boards have said this week that thousands of families have been switching to online learning in recent days amid rising COVID-19 rates.

In Ontario, families have been given a choice between in-person and virtual learning. Alberta school districts, too, have offered families an online option. The B.C. government said school districts have flexibility to provide remote learning options, but there is confusion among parents and school officials as to what that means. In Montreal, school districts did not provide a school-by-school enrolment breakdown of online and in-class learning. Online options in Quebec are only for children with medical exemptions and those forced to stay home because of illness or quarantine. The English school board said it had given about 400 medical exemptions that allow children to receive online learning among 19,600 students. The Centre de services scolaire de Montréal has 363 students online among its 77,500 students.

How race, income and ‘opportunity hoarding’ will shape Canada’s back-to-school season

Good long read on how the impact of COVID-19 will likely increase inequality further:

Two weeks before vice-principal Brandon Zoras was to welcome a group of students back to the classrooms at Toronto’s Westview Centennial Secondary School, a message appeared in his LinkedIn inbox from a stranger.

“Hi Brandon, hope you are doing well! I am looking for an experienced TDSB Grade 11 chemistry tutor to coach my son online only (due to social distancing) – to start right away. Please let me know if that is something you (or someone you know) can help my son with. Best regards.”

Irritated, Mr. Zoras groaned and deleted it without replying.

Westview has one of the largest Black student populations in the country and sits in the northwest corridor of Toronto, which has become the epicentre for COVID-19 infections. Many students live in cramped housing, have parents who are essential workers and rely on public transit to get around, all things that contribute to the high infection rate – which is 10 times that of the least-infected parts of the city. The average annual income for residents in the area is $27,984 – half of what it is for Toronto as a whole.

“It makes my heart hurt for the families who can’t afford a tutor or who can’t afford all these additional things,” said Mr. Zoras, a science educator.

Since he began working as an educator 11 years ago, he has seen the way public education funding has been diminished, how families in the system have found ways to privatize parts of their children’s schooling to get what they want. Education advocates say those efforts are making things less equitable for everyone else.

Every year, parents across the country lobby to get their children into advanced-placement classes, buy houses in neighbourhoods that will give them access to coveted schools and fundraise on the school council to bring in technology and high-level arts programming.

Now, with the return to school amidst a global pandemic, those efforts to secure the best for their children, known in sociology as “opportunity hoarding,” have become more overt. The confidence many had in the public-education system has been ripped apart because of reopening plans and it seems no amount of fundraising, private meetings with principals or school council strategizing can bring about the changes many are seeking for a safe return to school.

The result is some of the most privileged public-school families are opting for distance education, hiring personal tutors and forming private learning pods – decisions that are ostensibly made in the best interests of their children, but which will likely cause major rifts across race and class. Those in lower-income communities are also choosing remote learning because they have elderly relatives living with them who are vulnerable to getting sick, they feel a heightened threat from COVID-19 because they are in areas with the highest infection rates and the buildings in which they live pose challenges to getting to school on time in a pandemic.

That families on both ends of the socio-economic spectrum are opting for remote learning exposes cracks that already existed in the system. There’s a threat the most privileged will pull out to customize their own education since they can afford to, while others who are fearful of sending their children back to school but cannot pay for private help are becoming test subjects for a new realm of online learning. As plans are pulled together haphazardly, there’s a concern the divide will deepen.

This week, school boards in Toronto, Peel Region and Halton Region released the results of parent surveys that show a sizable portion of students will not be in classes this fall: 30 per cent of elementary and 22 per cent of high school students for Toronto; 33 per cent combined for Peel; and 29 per cent elementary and 15 per cent high school for Halton. A portion of households didn’t respond and school staff will be reaching out to them directly, which could change these figures.

At Thorncliffe Park Public School, in a community that has long been a landing pad for newcomers and where the median household income is $46,595, 38 per cent of families surveyed say they’ll do remote learning this fall.

Munira Khilji, a mother of two in Thorncliffe Park, said many parents she knows chose this option because they live in high-rises and don’t want to endure waits of an hour or longer just to take the elevator while pandemic-related capacity limits are in place – and they worry about physical distancing in such a cramped space.

The issue is most apparent in Ontario, where families have been given a clear choice between in-person and remote learning, but it’s forcing a reckoning in many other parts of the country. In Alberta, 28 per cent of students in Edmonton’s public school board have chosen remote learning. In British Columbia, Education Minister Rob Fleming has said that school districts have the flexibility to provide remote learning options, but there is confusion among parents and school officials as to what that will mean and whether students will remain enrolled in their home schools.

“What COVID has done once again is expose the stark inequities in our system and the realities that families in marginalized communities have to navigate,” said Jeewan Chanicka, the former superintendent of equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression at the Toronto District School Board. “These families also know that their communities are going to be hit the hardest. They are behaving in a way where they’re trying to save their children’s lives.”

Some worry the shift out of the classroom could have devastating long-term consequences: If parents come to appreciate the increased attention their child gets from a teacher in a pod with just four other students, they might opt to continue this post-pandemic and permanently withdraw from a system whose funding is determined by head count.

“Where I worry a bit is in particular for those of privilege; if they’re pulling their children out, whether or not they will return to public education, I don’t know,” Mr. Chanicka said. “My hope is that yes, this is a blip because of the pandemic.”

COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to rethink how Canada operates homeless shelters and long-term care – will the same be true for schools, or will navigating the pandemic only further fracture the system?

Before Marty Menard even had a daughter, he and his wife had done their homework on which school they wanted her to attend. Wortley Road Public School in London, Ont., a well-regarded K-8 school known for its small student population and very involved parent community, stood out. When Mr. Menard’s wife was in her third trimester, they bought a house in Wortley Village, which the Canadian Institute of Planners dubbed the best neighbourhood in Canada in 2013, so they’d be in the catchment area for the school they determined was their first and only choice.

In his daughter’s second year there, Mr. Menard enthusiastically joined many of the various parent committees and even became co-chair of the school council, helping organize fundraisers, the breakfast program and cultural celebrations.

When schools shut down in mid-March, Mr. Menard turned to a private tutoring program to offer his daughter an hour of instruction a day and also found a few hours each week to use online resources from the Khan Academy to help boost her development. But after a few months, his daughter said she was lonely and Mr. Menard knew this couldn’t continue into September. A learning pod seemed like the best solution: The risk of his daughter being exposed to the novel coronavirus would be lower than it might be in a packed classroom, but she would still enjoy social interaction. On social media, he found a few other parents and a provincially certified teacher who will lead the pod, but is struggling to find a space that will host them without greatly increasing the costs, which he estimates will be about $500 to $750 a month.

With school already under way in some provinces and just a few weeks away in others, the scramble to clear those logistical hurdles has sent plenty of parents who have chosen the same option as Mr. Menard into a frenzy.

As August wore on, the panic among parents in the Learning Pods – Canada Facebook group was palpable. Thousands from Vancouver Island to Halifax, but mostly in Ontario, had flocked to the group to find others in their neighbourhood to pod up with, to find a teacher to hire, or to share their story about turning to this option to protect an immunocompromised member of their family.

They solicited advice on everything from costs (“Can folks share how much is a reasonable salary to offer a teacher for a pod of four?” asked one mom in Hamilton) to insurance (“My insurance company approved extended insurance for each child in my pod. They will not cover communicable disease transmission. Has anyone else figured out how to get around this? Co-op among parents to share the responsibility? Corporation to reduce risk?” wrote another in Waterloo, Ont.). Some pods will rotate between a group of households where parents share teaching duties; others will be situated in rented spaces with lots of technology and resources provided and come with a cost of up to a few thousand dollars a month.

On and offline, the conversation on learning pods often leads to bigger questions of equity: are they classist? Do they further the divide between the haves and the have nots? Shouldn’t parents with enough privilege to put their children in a learning pod harness it to lobby the government to make classrooms safe for all children?

Those debates have arisen in Mr. Menard’s own marriage. He describes himself as a “lefty” and a proponent of the public school system, which he says has been steadily defunded for years – but still, he and his wife have decided that given the pandemic and the government’s plans, this is the best option for his family.

“Nothing is going to marginalize kids more than people like me who could afford a learning pod,” he says. “The bottom line as a parent is I still have to put my kid’s interests above every other point of view or political point of view that I have.”

It’s a rationale sociologist Margaret Hagerman encountered again and again when she spent time with affluent white families in the American Midwest as part of research for her book White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. She observed a phenomenon she dubs “the conundrum of privilege”: Parents who identify as progressives, who care about equity, who may have taken their children to the climate strike or hung up a Black Lives Matter poster in their window, don’t think twice about what it means to give their children advantages that others don’t have access to. They want to raise their children in a just society, but they’ve used their privilege to work against that very goal.

“I think we need to reconfigure what we mean when we say we are doing the best for our child or being the best parent,” she said. “I don’t actually think that advocating for your own kid when that harms other people is the best version of anything.”

When parents talk about the gifts they want to give their children for the future, she likes to challenge them: “Don’t you want your kid to live in a society with less racial violence and with less inequality and social conflict and social problems and suffering?” she asks. “If you could do things now that would provide that different future for your child and the other children around him, it’s kind of philosophical, but I just think that that’s a compelling argument.”

While some who have opted for pods defend their choice with the argument that this will make classrooms less populous and therefore safer for students who do attend in person, the net effect isn’t the reduced class sizes parents, epidemiologists and public health experts have recommended. Rather, classes will be combined and likely grow in size because the government has not funded lower class sizes.

In Edmonton, the city’s public school board said nearly 29,000 students, or roughly 28 per cent of its entire enrolment, had opted for online learning as of Wednesday, though the board stressed that those numbers could change. To accommodate them, it has assigned 775 teachers to those online students. The board has hired an additional 100 teachers on temporary contracts, but board chair Trisha Estabrooks said the shift has meant decreased in-class enrolment hasn’t led to a decrease in class sizes.

“Even though we have 30 per cent of our students choosing to learn online, the reality is that doesn’t decrease the overall class size either, because we also need to have teachers in place to teach those online cohorts,” said Ms. Estabrooks, who acknowledged that in many classrooms, physical distancing is difficult, if not impossible.

Atiba Ralph, a single Black father, said he has heard so far that all of his daughter’s friends will return to in-person classes this fall; he hadn’t even heard of learning pods but said they sounded like “a pretty smart idea,” albeit one that was out of reach for him.

“It probably happened with the people that are in a higher tax bracket,” he said. “I have a little bit more financial problems.”

The COVID-19 threat is present every time he steps out of his apartment in Toronto: He lives in the Jane and Finch area, one of the most-infected in the city, and knows of two Black people – one a neighbour of his mother, another a friend of a friend – who died of COVID-19 earlier this year. Public health data collected by the city from mid-May to mid-July showed Black people had the highest share of COVID-19 infections.

Recognizing that some neighbourhoods have been much harder hit than others by COVID-19, the Toronto District School Board is directing extra funds and capping class sizes at abo

ut 80 schools in those areas, most of which are in the northwest corner of the city.

Alice Romo, an education advocate with the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network, says she worries about the way children from low-income neighbourhoods will fall behind this year if they are educated at home: They’ll be less engaged, it will be more difficult for them to finish their homework and, crucially, many will miss out on all the non-academic parts of school that keep low-income communities afloat, such as breakfast and lunch programs.

“We’re definitely going to see this a few years down the road. There will be more of an inequality gap,” she said.

Those who withdraw from the system may think the decision only affects their household, “the more you shift the role of education towards families and away from public schools, the more inequality you’re going to have,” says Andrew Franklin-Hall, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto who studies ethics.

For some students, school might be the only environment where they are exposed to peers from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds; in a learning pod, just like in a private school, opportunities for that exposure are limited.

“When parents are suddenly forced to make this kind of decision, naturally they turn to the resources they have, which is their own friends, their own community,” he said. “This is not the sort of thing that people feel comfortable articulating, because they don’t want to say, ’Well, I don’t trust the people who are different than me or I don’t trust the people who aren’t as well off or have a different race.’”

Before the pandemic forced a crisis in the education system, many school boards had committed to addressing systemic racism and inequity by re-evaluating programs, such as French immersion (which attracts a higher proportion of affluent, white students) and streaming (which routinely put Black children on a path to applied courses, which limit their options after graduation), that have disadvantaged students from low-income and racialized communities. Now with educators focused on the basics of opening schools, reimagining the system seems impractical, if not impossible.

In June, Stephanie Brembridge, a Black mother in Toronto whose son attends a public Catholic school, reached out to the school principal to ask whether she could add an item to the agenda for the next parent council meeting of the year: She wanted to discuss what the predominantly white school could do to better help Black and Indigenous students succeed.

Her faith in the school had already been tested. Her son, Trusten, had been suspended several times – once for apparently saying “an inappropriate word” – though the school was never able to tell Ms. Brembridge what that word was. With the help of an advocacy group that works with Black parents, she was able to get a few of those suspensions overturned (data collected at school boards across the country show that Black students are suspended and expelled at a disproportionate rate).

When it came time for the parent council meeting, which was held over Zoom, Ms. Brembridge noticed her item was at the very end of the agenda. She grew anxious as an hour and a half flew by, while the other parents (all but one of them were white) discussed which teachers were retiring, how they might safely plan a social function in the summer and other matters Ms. Brembridge believed to be far less pressing than hers.

“Okay, I think that’s it,” someone said, ready to adjourn the meeting. Ms. Brembridge, surprised, unmuted her microphone and reminded them she still hadn’t spoken. She was told she had three minutes and could see parents starting to leave the chat. “I‘m not going speak until I can get everybody’s full attention,” she said. Her item was moved to the agenda for the next meeting – three months later, in September.

As a teacher in Toronto, Kelly Iggers has been exposed to the type of parental advocacy that’s aimed at “achieving supports that will benefit one’s own child.” When she learned Ontario’s back-to-school plan, released in late July, would not include reduced class sizes, she started a petition arguing in favour of them that netted more than 250,000 signatures across the province and evolved into a campaign with parents, educators, doctors and others discussing and planning in closed groups, including a WhatsApp chat.

“This issue of advocating for a safe and equitable return to school, it’s not about advocating for one’s own community or one’s own child,” she said. “This only works if we’re advocating for something that’s going to support everyone.”

This moment of reckoning in Ontario comes at a time when Alberta is moving toward a model that could heighten class and race disparities within the public system. For now, it’s the only province to have charter schools, which are independently run, non-profit public schools that have a greater degree of autonomy than a normal public school, allowing them to create programming that’s only for girls, or for the academically gifted.

Earlier this week, the Choice in Education Act took effect that, among other things, makes it easier to apply for and create a charter school. Now, a group wanting to establish a new charter school can bypass the local school board and apply directly to the government.

Calgary mom Dallas Hall’s son started Grade 4 last month at Connect Charter School after switching from a local public school. Ms. Hall said she likes the type of education he’s receiving, which includes experiential learning and outdoor learning. She also said the school has less bureaucracy than a traditional public school system – the same features that are making private school or learning pods an attractive option for parents elsewhere. Ms. Hall likes the idea of parents having choice in education. “They should have a voice. Their voice should be welcome,” she said.

Ms. Iggers said she didn’t want to vilify parents who are choosing private options, but says this shift out of the classroom has the potential to cause long-term damage.

“It’s prompting families with the means to do so to leave the system,” she said. And when they leave, “they [take] with them what are often the most powerful voices to advocate for a properly funded education system.”


Colleges, universities expecting large financial losses from drop in international students

We shall see over the next month or so when IRCC study permit data for July and August becomes available (July data should be out sometime next week):

Colleges and universities say they’re anticipating financial losses possibly in the billions of dollars due to a drop in international enrolments caused by the global pandemic.

The government of Canada last week took additional steps to make it easier for students to study online from abroad, but the national associations that represent universities and colleges say the losses are still likely to be significant. The associations are lobbying the federal government to make money available for postsecondary institutions.

Denise Amyot, president of Colleges and Institutes Canada, said a mid-June survey showed colleges expected their new international enrolments to fall by two-thirds this term, from about 90,000 to 30,000. It’s still unclear whether those fears will be realized, as data are not yet available, but colleges are hoping the impact will be less than expected, Ms. Amyot said.

“Administrators are worried right now. They’re worried about the financial impact. They’re worried they’ll have fewer programs to offer domestic students,” she said. “Every student counts right now. I can’t think of a better way to put it.”

International students are crucial to university finances because they represent half of all tuition revenue. The impact of the pandemic may be more pronounced for colleges, though, as they tend to offer shorter programs that result in more frequent student turnover.

International students contribute nearly $22-billion a year to the Canadian economy, according to federal government estimates, with billions flowing from postsecondary tuition fees alone. Ms. Amyot said an analysis conducted on behalf of the colleges estimates between $1.8-billion and $3.5-billion in lost revenue, depending on the length and severity of the pandemic.

Universities Canada said it does not yet know the extent of losses across the sector. Some universities, including the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta, said international acceptances are in line with previous years, but numbers aren’t firm as students still have a month to withdraw. And the picture may be quite different from one institution to another.

“We are in active discussions with federal government departments about how we can work together to stabilize from the potential loss of international students,” said Cindy McIntyre, assistant director, international relations at Universities Canada.

Education is primarily a provincial responsibility. Ontario provided an additional $25-million to postsecondary institutions early in the pandemic to cope with some of the additional associated costs. Quebec gave $75-million to institutions and made more money available in student assistance. But the national postsecondary associations are aiming to persuade the federal government to contribute some pandemic-specific funds to the sector, as they did with the $2-billion recently announced for elementary and high schools.

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISEDC) said Wednesday that Ottawa is having conversations with the provinces and territories regarding the types of supports that are needed. And Ottawa has since taken steps to ease some of the concerns of institutions, including a two-step process to speed approval for those who want to start their studies online. It has also allowed U.S. students to cross the border as long as they quarantine for 14 days on arrival and increased federal student financial aid.

At the moment only those with permits issued before mid-March whose travel is deemed essential and those from the U.S. are allowed to enter Canada.

Last week, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced measures that will allow students to complete one-year programs online without being penalized on the length of their postgraduate work permit. But the decision many institutions are waiting on is whether other international students with visas processed after mid-March will be allowed to enter the country. At the moment provincial and federal health officials are assessing plans submitted by institutions for the safe isolation of arriving students.

“It’s now too late to get international students here for the start of the fall semester, but many of our institutions still have an interest in seeing international students arrive over the course of the fall,” Ms. McIntyre said.

When asked whether Ottawa would step in with more funding to address the shortfall, ISEDC did not answer the question directly, but pointed to changes the government has already brought in, including $450-million in funding for academic research. IRCC also cited previous measures to help international students.

“Recently, changes were brought forward to give international students more certainty about their ability to enter Canada once travel restrictions are eased in Canada and their home countries,” said Mike Jones, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino. “Students who have submitted a complete application will receive priority processing to make sure they can begin their classes while outside Canada, and complete up to 50 per cent of their program from abroad if they can’t travel sooner.”

There were more than 700,000 international students at all levels in 2018, a number that has grown rapidly over the past decade. Normally tens of thousands of new students would be arriving in September, but not this year. At the moment only those with permits issued before mid-March are allowed to enter Canada.

Gautham Kolluri, who runs an international student recruitment company, said students and families are apprehensive about starting an expensive degree at a time when it’s unclear when they will be able to travel to Canada. Many international students pay tuition fees of $20,000 or more, which many plan to partly fund by working part-time while studying.

Mr. Kolluri said he has a few hundred clients who have been accepted by Canadian institutions but he believes a majority will either defer admission or drop those programs in the next month. He thinks only a quarter will pursue their programs online from their home countries.

“They will lose networking opportunities and they will lose the Canadian experience they want, so they will delay and wait and see,” Mr. Kolluri said. “Investing $30,000 without knowing what will happen is a big gamble.”

He said Canada remains a top destination country, as political developments in the U.S. have made it a less desirable option.