By: Hargun Grewal
Technology has radically changed the institution of education from what we may have known at the rise of the 21st century to today; advancements in technology coupled with educational innovation have led to new teaching methods. Digital learning is not only now possible, but in many ways, it has become essential. Yet, as modes of learning advance in both content and form, social needs also evolve; associated policies and legislation regarding student rights in the analog world may be inconsistent with a virtual platform's demands.
While e-learning has existed since the 1990's, the COVID-19 global pandemic has created an urgent need for school boards to adopt and administer virtual learning en mass. Despite the swiftness in which digital learning has been adopted throughout Ontario, have we overlooked the impact of current policies on virtual spaces?
In the past few months, no policy change has addressed existing disparities between students, which seek only further to exacerbate old issues in new learning environments. For example, the Education Act governs student discipline in Ontario; however, it is unequipped to deal with the unique challenges of e-learning. The objective of disciplining any student attending a public school in Ontario, is to help the student develop and maintain self-control, respect for others and engage in socially acceptable behaviour. Suspensions are permitted to remove students physically from school property to increase the safety of other students or decrease disruptions. In theory, it would give respite to well-behaved students. E-learning presents a new set of challenges if we accept this premise. Suspensions may not be warranted when the digital world can be manipulated to ensure that students in a class do not disturb each other. There are also challenges in determining schools' jurisdiction; the Education Act provides for the intervention of schools where behaviours outside its physical setting and even school hours may affect the school's climate. Students only interact with schools in a digital space; it is unclear if the purpose of student discipline remains respite, retributive or punitive. This is an important distinction, as it informs how schools should address novel issues. Consider an incident in the United States, where a 12-year old black student was suspended from school for playing with a [toy] Nerf Gun during an online class. The student's school disciplinary record referred to a "facsimile of a firearm to school."
Policies are important. They set the grounds for accountability; where policy may prevent bringing toy [Nerf] guns to school property, it is easy to see a distinction in bringing one to your virtual classroom while in the comfort of your home. Policies that allow for discretion to be excised, or breeding grounds for discriminatory practices. When it comes to student discipline, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) found that "compared to White students, Black students were 17.5 times more likely to perceive discriminatory treatment in the application of suspension practices and 31.6 times more likely to perceive discriminatory treatment in the use of police by the school."
The Education Act was not created with a virtual learning in mind. It is conceivable that some of its legislative framework may conflict or expose itself to vulnerabilities when applied to e-learning. School Boards across Ontario must be sensitive to this. Thoughtful and proactive policy that address digital inequities and vulnerabilities is crucial to modern-day schooling.
Hargun Grewal is in his final year at McMaster University. He has been a student intern with Battick Legal since September 2020.