Pump the policy brakes during COVID-19.

Over the past few months I have found myself wondering time and again if the individuals who are tasked with running the various educational jurisdictions across our great land really grasp the severity of our current COVID crisis.

Consider this: a few weeks ago, Alberta’s United Conservative Party unveiled its brand new K-6 curriculum for public schools. Reviewing this document was actually one of Premier Jason Kenney’s key platforms as far back as 2017. At that time, the New Democratic Party under Rachel Notley had already embarked on a major review of the public school curriculum; a review of which Kenney was publicly critical. He went so far as to declare the rewrite was purposely reflecting the political views of the NDP government, and that it smacked of social engineering, claims which then Education Minister David Eggen called “absolute baloney”.

The UCP did scrap the NDP review after coming to power, and the first draft of their own effort was released on March 29th. According to the Premier, the new approach would prevent schools from teaching a “distorted” version of Canadian history and would rather present a more flattering vision of our nation that would “cultivate gratitude and pride.” in students.

When the document was unveiled it unleashed a cacophony of criticism. One of the largest of these is that the “more flattering version” amounts to nothing more than a “white washing” of controversial content. One such concern was aired by University of Alberta associate professor Carla Peck, who noted the curriculum’s poor handling of the issue of Canadian residential schools as an example. Parents were also quick to identify some fairly gaping holes in the new curriculum, and within days of its release, the Facebook page Albertans Reject Curriculum Draft was boasting over thirty thousand members. Teachers also rang alarm bells, with the Alberta Teachers Association President stating that the document was fatally flawed, calling on the government to halt implementation.

Beyond the considerable content concerns, there is also a fairly convincing argument being made by some that parts of the document have been plagiarized. University of Calgary’s Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton characterized the curriculum as “a patchwork of material pulled from different sources” without appropriate credit being given. She calls this approach “patchwriting” which, according to Eaton, generally occurs “when writers lack the skills or confidence to paraphrase effectively.” This particular revelation raised a great many tax-payer eyebrows in Alberta, particularly considering the UCP spent upwards of $100,000 hiring supposedly expert advisers from outside of the province to work on the document. In an interesting local twist, one of these advisers was Halifax’s very own Paul W. Bennett, who was apparently hired to help review the curriculum just before it was released.

As someone who follows such things, I do find the nuances of what is happening in Alberta fascinating for sure. As well, I have been critical of the work of pseudo-experts like Bennett in the past, so there was no shortage of fodder here upon which a writer like myself could have feasted. However, as I have been watching this particular train-wreck transpire, I have been stricken by one particular thought above all others.

Why in the name and honour of time is anyone even remotely considering any sort of educational policy change in the middle of a global pandemic?

As bad as the curriculum document is, (and it is very, very bad) it’s the timing of the thing that has me gob-smacked. Our entire nation, just like every other nation on the planet, is currently living under a blanket of perpetual fear. Many of our country’s schools are completely shuttered, with the stress of online learning mounting daily. In those areas where schools have remained open, teachers are hanging on by their fingernails. The job has never been an easy one, but the stress that all educational workers are under right now is palpable.

In every school across the country, adults are operating on constant high alert, trying to keep the kids, your kids, safe from a deadly and heartless virus that is, in many areas, still raging out of control. At the same time, they are trying desperately to “Stay calm and carry on” with the task of providing those same kids an education, not knowing from day to day whether their school, their students or their family will become the next COVID statistic.

And Kenney and crew think this is a good time to make teachers learn a new curriculum?

And it’s not just Alberta. In Manitoba, the government is making changes to their school governance model (thanks, in part to Avis Glaze) which includes the abolition of elected schools boards and a realignment of jurisdictions. In Ontario, where COVID numbers are reaching nightmarish proportions, the government has announced that it is considering making on-line learning permanent, a discussion which has many educators worried. Even here in Nova Scotia, proposed policy changes for this fall that could see a large number of high school teachers adding an extra course to their current teaching workload for the 2021-22 school year.

At any other time, these changes, for better or worse, would be simply par for the course. Indeed, one of the only constants in the world of education is that it is always changing. However, I can’t imagine an argument that can be made to justify adding anything to anyone’s plate in this particular moment in history.

Like it or not, educational workers are on the front line of this thing. Not to the extent of health care workers, for sure, but the COVID crises has certainly shone a glaringly bright light on how important schools, and the people who staff them, are to ensuring a fully functional society. I believe it would be prudent to pump the policy brakes for the time being and let education workers of all stripes focus their energy on the current, and at times seemingly insurmountable, challenges facing our schools.

There will be plenty of time for educational policy change when COVID 19 is finally (and hopefully forever) solidly situated in our collective rear view mirror.


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