Maytree blog

Rethinking education: What the pandemic teaches us about the role of schools

Published on 28/07/2021

Access to public, universal education for children is something that is widely accepted in Canada – so much so that we might be taking it for granted.

We sat down with Annie Kidder, Executive Director of People for Education, to talk about what the COVID-19 pandemic showed us about the way we think about our school system, why we need to talk about education as a collective good and a human right, and what we need to do now to mitigate the damage of prolonged school closures and prepare for next school year.

Bonnie Mah, Maytree: How has this last year and the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way we think about our school system? What are some lessons that we can draw from this year?

Annie Kidder, People for Education: More attention has been paid to school this year than in all the time I’ve been doing this work. School has been a huge topic because of what governments did or didn’t do – where they opened, where they closed, and what they provided to support people. It made the public understand that school is important and, hopefully, it also made people think a little bit more about the kind of deep inequities that have existed all along.

Suddenly, you could see the inequities. Do you have internet access or don’t you? That’s a nice concrete example.

But you could also see that for some families the pandemic was way more of a strain than for others, and you could see the gaps we have in society – gaps that have always been there.

I have a hope and a fear. The hope is that the pandemic has really exposed all these inequities and that people will want to do something about it. The fear is that there’s going to be a feeling of relief – “Thank goodness, now we can just go back to normal!” And we won’t do anything about the issues that were always there.

Bonnie: A lot of public discussion on inequity has focused on that concrete example: Do you have a laptop and internet? What are some of the other factors that contribute to these inequities?

Annie: One of the worries is that particular issue is so easy to solve: “Oh, we have a solution. We’ll give you a laptop. The end. Goodbye.”

In education, socio-demographics have been the number one predictor of kids’ success in school – all along and during the pandemic. And that’s not just about whether or not you have internet access. It is about all of the other kinds of supports and enrichment that families can provide depending on their family’s level of education, their family income, things like that.

For example, take families who were working in “essential jobs.” They often lived in higher density settings, had lower average family incomes, and maybe there were more kids at home. And the parents still had to go out to work. In many cases, the kids in these families may have been struggling in school pre-pandemic. It would be much more of a struggle for these families to support their kids when schools were closed.

Plus, because we have so much data about health, we could see that they were also families that were more likely to get COVID. So there was a much greater impact on these families.

In addition, there were definitely worries about kids in families struggling with dysfunction. With schools closed, there was no longer somebody to see issues like that – no teacher to flag it.

Another thing to consider about this year is the impact of school closures on extracurricular activities. We knew from research that families that could afford it would make up for what was missing from school. That enrichment makes a real difference in terms of kids’ long-term success.

Bonnie: You mentioned health data about COVID-19. Do we have that kind of data in education about who is better served and less well-served by the education system?

Annie: We don’t. We haven’t done with education what we did with health. We had many different task forces to do with health, but we haven’t had an education task force. And it is really worrying that we don’t have data and evidence from across different parts of the province.

Even though many people were saying we have a health crisis, an economic crisis, and an education crisis, the education crisis always came a very distant third in terms of the attention paid and the data collected on it.

Bonnie: What does that tell us about how we see the role of education in our society?

Annie: As a society, we don’t necessarily see education as a vital public good. We don’t see it as something that’s important to everybody. We’ve lost sight of the incredible value of education – the collective economic value and the collective social value.

If you think of education as a private good – as in, “I need this for my children so they can be successful” – then things fall apart. In the pandemic, people suddenly paid attention, but I’m not sure that we saw it as a social problem.

Interestingly, we saw childcare as a social problem. We had managed to pay zero attention to childcare for years. Suddenly, we realized childcare was really important, because people couldn’t go to work if they didn’t have childcare. And, horribly enough, we may have seen education that way too. Suddenly we were taking it seriously because the childcare part of education was important.

Bonnie: At People for Education, you’ve been developing a framework for education as a human right in Canada. Some people might ask, why do we need this? Because we already have universal public education. Why do we need to talk about education as a human right?

Annie: I hope it’s one way of shifting that conversation on the role of education in our society. What do we want our society to look like? Do we want it to be fair, equitable, sustainable – a society in which all children have access and a chance for real long-term success, and governments will report on how we’re doing and ensure that that happens?

In education, the inequity is absolutely entrenched. It has not changed for 20 years, no matter what we do. There’s also an incredible amount of politics in education. So what we do in our education systems swings depending on the government.

By approaching this from a positive rights-based perspective, we hope to build a more solid ground for education, to start to describe the things that all kids should have access to.

Bonnie: How would you say we’re doing on in terms of fulfilling the human right to education?

Annie: To think about that, you have to go back to core principles and ask, what does everybody have a right to? You have to define the overall purpose of education.

When you read the definitions of education in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and in other conventions and covenants, they all describe a very rich vision for education, one that’s about the process of becoming a capable human being. They don’t say, “every child will learn their times tables in grade two.” They all talk about the development of human beings.

The incredible unfairness is that some families can provide all the things – camps, drama club, Saturday mornings at the museum – that help develop the skills and competencies that make you thrive in the world. And more and more we’re realizing, they’re it, those skills and competencies. If you don’t have those, it will be very difficult to thrive in the knowledge economy or in our modern world.

The inequity will become worse because we’re not thinking of schools as the place where kids learn these things. We still think of those as extras.

Accountability is important on this. Governments and school boards have to report – but right now, what they report is test scores in reading, writing, and math, and these don’t capture the bigger purpose of education. We don’t hold our systems to account for the development of capable, participating human beings.

Bonnie: How does the human right to education relate to Indigenous rights?

Annie: It’s really complex. Indigenous rights and human rights aren’t necessarily the same thing. Some people point out this sort of rights-based thinking is already a colonial structure. The right to control your own education is an Indigenous right and that can’t be overtaken by a big general, right to education framework.

I would like to acknowledge, as a white person who is not an expert on Indigenous rights, that it’s been very important for us as an organization to think way harder, all the time, about the relationship between education and Indigenous rights.

On a related note, let’s name the importance of Indigenous ways of knowing and learning, because there are Indigenous scholars who say, “We’ve been doing this for thousands of years, and maybe you should try learning from us instead.”

Bonnie: Let’s come back to where we started the conversation about this pandemic year. What do you think we should be doing to prepare for next school year?

Annie: Kids’ mental health is what we should be talking about right now. This last year and half, being in a pandemic, has been mind-boggling even for big, privileged grown-ups. Think about kids and their need for stability and routine. This has been a huge disruption. Some kids will come to school and they will have known people who died. Some will have known people who were sick. Some of them may have been afraid.

We need to make sure that there’s breathing room for conversations. That we understand that “how are you?” is a vital question that we must ask everybody, four-year-olds and 17-year-olds. And that we’re really allowing time for thinking about that and exploring that – not just in the first week of school, but throughout the year.

I understand we should be talking about safety. So yes, let’s talk about health measures. But right now we’re talking a lot about HEPA filters and we’re not talking enough about education.

Also, there’s a lot of talk about learning loss in a pretty prescriptive and narrow way – as in, “kids will be two months behind in math.” The worry is that this will lead to a re-narrowing of our definition of education at exactly the time that we should not be doing that. And politically, that’s going to be a really easy sell because it seems obvious.

What we should be doing – and should have been doing since last spring – is having a task force on education. BC has one. Scotland has one. These are tables with childcare people, politicians, policy makers, teachers, principals, school board reps, parents, and students. They sit together and they talk to each other and provide advice to government. It’s been most frustrating that we haven’t done that in Ontario.

And on an even bigger scale, we have a jurisdictional problem. We have a constitution that says education is provincial and territorial. But we need a conversation across the country about what we should be doing to prepare for the coming years. We’ve always needed this, but it’s especially important right now.

Bonnie Mah is Lead, Strategic Narrative at Maytree.


We spoke with Annie Kidder of People for Education about what COVID-19 showed us about the way we think about schools, why we need to talk about education as a human right, and what we need to do next.