Opinion: Distance Learning has Prematurely Ended the School Year

Waterloo Region District School Board Education Centre. Photo by WRDSB Twitter (@wrdsb).

When all Ontario publicly funded schools shut down for two weeks following the March Break, not many students were prepared for the closure to extend beyond this point. Little did they know, this closure would completely alter the way they would learn for the remainder of the school year.

To keep students engaged in learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, the school board switched to distance learning. Instead of high school students trying to maintain a regular course load, each student was now expected to complete three hours of work per course every week. 

This reduced course load is supposed to ensure that students can focus on their mental well-being and learn at a pace they can keep up with, but it has one major flaw: no grade can fall below the one given at midterms.

What should be a breath of relief for most students has been the deciding factor to completely check out of the rest of the school year for other students. With no overhanging threat of failure, students who have a passing mark in a class they despise now have the option of not completing any additional work while maintaining a meager 53% in difficult and mundane senior courses such as Calculus and Vectors, Physics, or Chemistry. 

Even students with marks in the high nineties have lost their motivation to complete these distance learning modules. It’s become difficult to improve your overall grade, so students who continuously strive for perfection have no reason to continue doing work if their grade is (near) perfect. Furthermore, students with elective courses—a credit for a subject that the student chose to take—no longer can find a reason to keep up with the work.

It’s not like you can fail by refusing to do the work, or conversely, that there is some glorious prize for completing everything. So really, what’s the point?

When it comes to high school seniors, most college and university offers have already been sent out and accepted. Most of these students are content with the mark they had at midterms because it’s all they needed to graduate and move on to post-secondary in the fall.

For students seeking competitive programs such as Paramedicare or Engineering, they’ve met the minimum cutoff already, so there is no appeal to get a higher mark.

For most students, “learning”, which was once mandatory, has become a casual past-time to complete when all other hobbies have been exhausted. We can question what “learning” actually means when it’s motivated by a number at the end of a course – but that’s a debate for another time.

Regardless of a pandemic, learning is supposed to feel authentic. Some students may feel that they really do learn in a standard school setting, but for most, they “learn” to get a good mark. With grades now being taken out of the equation, learning feels more authentic, but the drive and motivation to complete the work in order to get high marks is gone. 

Initially, schools were to open again after two weeks. However, based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, the reopening date was pushed back to May 4th, and then again to May 31st.

With the original date, or even potentially the first-revised date, the restrictions set on distance learning could have been successful. The fear of not failing during the initial chaos of COVID-19 would have been eradicated. Students could focus on supporting their families and learning how to live under the new rules of physical distancing.

But as time has gone on, students have finally grasped the reality of not going back to school this year; distance learning has become increasingly redundant. It has changed from a way to engage students at home, to an annoyance to which any student can decide to say “I’m over it.”

With the revised date of May 31st looming over everyone, there still hasn’t been an update as to whether or not schools will be reopening. In a press conference this past Wednesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce refrained from giving an update but assured parents and students that they would “absolutely expect an outcome” early next week.

In my opinion, schools will not open up until September at the earliest. And they shouldn’t. Not solely because of the pandemic, but because of the mentality most students have adopted. At this point, any student actively participating in every single task handed out by their teacher either has a “completionist-perfectionism” issue or nothing better to do. Most students choose to do the few assignments they think they’ll enjoy, or they waste away their days playing video games or sleeping.

Why tell students that they can’t fail their classes only to have them return to school with one month left, all at different levels of course comprehension, and expect them to complete the rest of the curriculum? It makes no sense.

Final exams have been canceled anyway, but if schools are to open before June 1st, we all know at least one teacher who will expect their students to come back to school having completed everything.

Any hope of salvaging this year has been undermined by the knowledge that students can’t fail courses and their marks can’t go down. Reopening schools for the month of June will not make any difference.