A comparison of Ontario and Quebec school policies in 2020-2021

As schools in Quebec and Ontario reopen for in-person learning after an extended winter break, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the impacts and effectiveness of school closures over the past two years. In many jurisdictions, governments responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by closing schools for weeks or even months at a time. Policymakers sought to balance the risks of school-based viral spread with the knowledge that school closures would have complex and long-term negative impacts on learning, student and parental mental health, and parental (mostly mothers’) labour force participation.

In Canada, two provinces opted for notably divergent school closure strategies in 2020-2021. With comparable per capita COVID-19 rates through three similarly timed infection waves, Quebec targeted closures to regions and schools experiencing outbreaks, whereas Ontario took more of a blanket closure approach. In Quebec, the total length of province-wide school shutdowns was the lowest in the country at 9 weeks, compared to over 25 weeks in Ontario, not including further regional closures.

Given the similarities in terms of the spread of COVID-19 in these two jurisdictions, the evidence now suggests that Ontario’s more disruptive measures may not have been worth the harm caused. As infected children under 18 tend to have mild COVID cases, and the evidence of their role in transmission was unclear, balancing the psycho-social and academic harm of long breaks in in-person schooling with COVID risks for children and their communities was challenging, particularly in marginalized areas. Abrupt transitions to remote learning and lengthy periods of social isolation led to a reported increase in mental and physical health issues for many students, including a rise in eating disorders and other detrimental impacts on learning and social development. The lack of available supports for students often worsened these effects.

Shifting to virtual classes for elementary schools not only impacted children, but also their families. Eligibility for emergency childcare was strictly limited in both Ontario and Quebec. Many parents faced impossible choices of quitting jobs or putting the health of grandparents at risk to meet childcare needs. Others struggled to balance full-time work from home while supporting online learning and childcare. As the pandemic wore on, employer expectations that employees maintain normal productivity in unprecedented times heightened these challenges, “upending the lives of working parents.” Women—especially those who are racialized, disabled, low-income, or otherwise marginalized—disproportionately bore the brunt of having children at home full-time and left the workforce in numbers unseen for a generation. Although some argue that the “she-cession” was a brief phenomenon, more granular data suggests that the quality of women’s work has declined disproportionately to men’s, as evidenced by fewer promotions and higher burn-out rates, which will likely have long-term impacts on gender pay and position equity. When preventative policies cause harm, as school closures inarguably did, it is crucial to ask if they were worth it.

During the first wave of the pandemic, from March to May 2020, Quebec had the worst per capita COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates in Canada. Despite this, elementary schools reopened in most of the province in mid-May 2020.  Schools in Montreal and Laval, the epicentre of Quebec’s outbreak, remained closed until August 2020. In contrast, Ontario kept schools in the entire province closed from mid-March to June 2020. The Ontario government provided minimal support to families during this extended closure, with relatively little online learning combined with the first of three grants of $200-250 per child under the “Support for Families” program.

In both provinces, schools opened for in-person learning in September 2020. However, unlike in Quebec, the choice to attend in-person school in Ontario was optional, with school boards providing remote learning in addition to regular classes. Notably, in-class learning rates were lowest among schools located in highly racialized and low-income communities. In Toronto, 78% of families living in high-income neighbourhoods sent their children back to in-person classes, compared to 64% of families in low-income neighbourhoods.

During the second wave of Canada’s pandemic, from November 2020 to February 2021, Quebec and Ontario’s COVID-19 rates were comparable, and again among the worst in the country. With a larger population, Ontario’s infection and death case counts were higher, but Quebec’s were higher per capita. Once again, Quebec prioritized keeping schools open: all Quebec schools remained closed for one extra week in early January 2021 (following the two-week winter holiday), but then reopened. Specific classes and schools were moved online in response to COVID outbreaks, but there were no provincial or regional closures beyond this one week. A controversial curfew was imposed from January to May 2021, requiring Quebeckers to be at home other than for permitted reasons by 8pm, which the government justified as part of its strategy for reopening schools and keeping them open.

As COVID-19 rates, hospitalizations, and deaths rose exponentially in November 2020, and  despite initially stating that they would prioritize keeping schools open, Ontario announced an extended winter break controversially late. Unlike the previous year, and following much public criticism over its previous approach, the Ontario government kept schools open for in-person learning for students with disabilities who were unable to participate in remote learning. In this second round of school closures, Ontario implemented a phased reopening by region in response to COVID-19 hot spots. Northern Ontario schools reopened on January 11 due to comparably lower cases, while Southern Ontario schools outside the Greater Toronto Area reopened on February 8. Those in the worst-affected regions of York, Peel, and Toronto resumed in-person learning on February 16.

During the third wave, from March to June 2021, Quebec fared better on average than Ontario in per capita COVID-19 infections and deaths, though still worse than other provinces, and some regional outbreaks occurred. Again, most Quebec elementary schools remained open, although there were 2-3-week regional closures in response to outbreaks in April and May. By June 2021, not only were almost all Quebec students back in the classroom full-time (other than those in self-isolation due to direct COVID exposures), but they were no longer required to wear masks indoors. Ontario’s schools closed in early April 2021 and did not reopen before the end of the school year in June.

The balance between controlling the spread of COVID-19 and the harm caused by school closures was one of the trickiest and most controversial policy decisions of the pandemic. It is important to examine these choices within temporal and regional contexts; comparing Quebec and Ontario is useful as they experienced similar pandemic trajectories with distinct responses.

Ontario’s school closures of May-June 2020—when Quebec reopened schools without fuelling a second wave—can be positioned as an understandably prudent choice (given how little was known about the virus and effective ways to prevent its spread at that stage), although hindsight seems to indicate the extended shut-down was unnecessary. The January-February 2021 shift to virtual school in Ontario, which saw regional re-openings at different points in time (mid-January in Northern Ontario, and early to mid-February in Southern Ontario), was similarly understandable and almost certainly helped to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the province.

The most puzzling of decisions were Ontario’s school policies in the spring of 2021. During this time, Quebec closed in-person schools for 2-4 weeks in many districts, but there was no full-province shift to virtual school. In contrast, all of Ontario’s schools were closed to in-person learning for almost 3 consecutive months. The shutdowns in April 2021, when the Delta variant was spreading rapidly and the province’s ICUs were filling up, are justifiable. Yet by late May to June 2021, the surge in cases was declining. Sick Kids hospital, along with several other leading health and science organizations in Ontario, signed an open letter to the Provincial government recommending that schools reopen for the last 6 weeks of the school year. But they did not.

In sum, the Conservative government in Ontario said that they would open schools first and close them last, but this did not prove to be the case. They positioned virtual learning as a real alternative to in-person learning, as if the educational delivery was close enough to be of similar quality, when evidence strongly challenges this claim. Of note, Doug Ford’s government had been promoting the introduction of mandatory virtual learning for high school students prior to the pandemic, against the recommendations of educational experts; we cannot help but wonder whether this policy preference played a role in the many additional weeks of remote learning that Ontario’s students participated in compared to Quebec’s. Remote learning offers the potential for cost savings that appeal to neo-liberal governments such as Ford’s.

While we take issue with many of François Legault’s and his Coalition Avenir Québec’s other policies, particularly Bill 21, on the subject of in-person school during the 2020-21 phase of the pandemic, they did a better job of putting children and families first, by keeping more kids in school longer without significantly increasing the spread of COVID-19. This is consistent with Quebec’s prioritization of social investment policies in recent years, with a stronger “invest in the future” focus than the rest of Canada.

The comparative case of Quebec’s similar pandemic trajectory in contrast with distinctly different school opening policies suggests that harms caused by the many additional weeks of school shutdowns in Ontario may well have been for naught. Although it is too soon to say what the long-term impacts of these extra weeks of school closure are, keeping a close eye on potential deviations in post-pandemic educational and social skill gaps, child and parental mental health struggles, and female labour force outcomes between Quebec and Ontario is strongly recommended.

Additionally, we caution against further prolonged periods of school shutdowns in 2022. As social policy scholars, we do not intend this to be an epidemiological recommendation, particularly in the face of the Omicron variant which is challenging many of our pre-existing axioms about coronavirus spread and risks. However, we implore provincial governments to consult carefully and in good faith with public health experts, and to prioritize other COVID-19 policy options, especially increased school safety measures, over extended school closures.