Two-Tiered Education During a Pandemic

By Noor Rashid

As students, we’ve watched from the sidelines as decision-makers debate the future of education during COVID. Over the summer, everyone was talking about the fate of the 2020-21 academic year. Some students prepared to go to university, while younger public school students waited to hear any information at all. 

Now, it’s fall and we’re nearly two months into the school year. In a way, it feels as if the dust has settled. Those of us doing in-person school have adjusted to our “hybrid” school schedules, and we’re cramming in projects and tests to get grades in before the quadmester ends. Sometimes, we’ll look around and think about how surreal it all feels, but overall, we’ve settled into a peculiar sort of normalcy.

However, settling into a routine does not obscure the effects of a significant strain on our education system, in particular in our urban and public Toronto District School Board. We’ve heard the numbers – so far, more than $1.3 billion have been earmarked to assist schools in Ontario, and recently, the TDSB was dedicated $9 million in funding from the province. 

Honestly, I have no idea what those numbers mean. Yes, a billion dollars sounds like a lot. But then I take a glance at my peers attending private schools here in Toronto. I see high school students going to class in-person for full days, some even attending everyday. Most of them are operating on the same semestered or non-semestered schedule as pre-pandemic years. 

Even during the stretch of time between April and July, when we had sporadic classes and our marks were protected, I saw private school students with full day itineraries and significantly more online instruction than I had. 

We’ve already felt the effects of the underfunding of public schools, especially in contrast to our private school counterparts. I remember the period of time last year where there were classrooms of 50+ kids in public schools; those numbers would be unthinkable in a private classroom (we’ve all seen the ads touting their student-teacher ratios). 

On average, private high school students already score significantly higher than public high school students in reading, mathematics, and science assessments at age 15, and have higher levels of educational attainment by age 23. This disparity will only continue to grow.

Low-income students are also more likely to choose online than in-person school, and online courses are often a poor substitute for in-person classes. According to a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, the average full-time online learning classroom does not deliver even close to the same academic results as full time, in-person instruction. 

Of course, people at least have a general awareness of this issue. Hilltop Middle School, for example, where I went for grades 6-8 and is a large feeder school for Richview, is on the list of COVID-19 high-risk schools in the TDSB, meaning it caters to a low-income student population. It therefore gets more funding than a school that caters to a “less at-risk” student population. 

The real issue though, is that we’re not fighting to solve something that has only begun recently. COVID is just exacerbating a problem that has been putting public school students, and especially low-income students, at a systemic disadvantage for decades. The virus is really just widening the gap and potentially reversing any of the progress we’ve started to make.

I’d like to make the comparison of our education system to that of our healthcare. The fact that healthcare is free in Canada is a matter of great pride for a lot of Canadians. Most people would never consider the possibility of implementing a two-tier, semi-private medical system. The rich would be able to pay for superior care, while only basic public healthcare would exist for everyone else. By diverting resources to the private system, it would undermine the public one and lower the standard of care for those who can’t afford it. Why does the same principle not apply to our education system? 

It would be impractical (and even controversial) to “abolish” private schools, but the dangers of unequal distribution of resources are the same in a two-tiered healthcare system as they are in education. Perhaps this needs to be addressed by having more funding, rather than the cost cutting that seems to pervade the public system; some things are worth the investment. 

We need to start understanding that a lot of our systemic issues are not here because of COVID. The virus is merely showing us what we’ve already done, and without doing enough to fix them, everything will only get so much worse.