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Rampant COVID-19 school closures, lack of online learning plague poorer countries

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OTTAWA — As fretful Canadian parents mull sending their children to school or opting for at-home learning, poorer countries are coming to grips with no school at all as the only option.

Lebanon has become one of the latest countries to join those ranks as the fallout from the massive Aug. 4 port explosion in Beirut will keep tens of thousands of children out of classrooms because their schools were levelled or severely damaged.

Peter Simms, the education adviser for Plan International Canada, says a lost year of school is threatening to compound the “toxic stress” that young people in Lebanon were already feeling after surviving the explosion.

In Lebanon, 180 schools were damaged in the blast and that will keep 85,000 students out of classrooms.

Across the globe, the lack of school will leave young girls, particularly teens, increasingly vulnerable to abuse, threats, pregnancy and forced marriage, said Simms.

That is threatening to set back two decades’ worth of progress in elevating the lives of women and girls in underdeveloped countries unless richer countries invest more in development spending, he said.

“Anybody who tries to stick their head in the sand and say, don’t worry, we’ll just wait for the vaccine and then we’ll be fine, is ignoring the amount of work this will take.”

The Lebanese crisis is one example of a deep and widening education deficit brought on by COVID-19.

In a recent report, the United Nations Children’s Fund estimated that 463 million children were deprived of remote learning because of the pandemic lockdown, while 1.5 billion children were adversely affected by school closures.

The UNICEF reported noted that sub-Saharan Africa was the most affected region, where half of all students were cut off from school.

“Girls and boys across Canada are heading back to school, but millions of children in the world’s toughest places may never go back, including up to one million girls across sub-Saharan Africa,” said Michael Messenger, president of World Vision Canada.

“The growing economic crunch caused by the pandemic has also created a child protection crisis. Both child labour and early marriages are on the rise. If we don’t act now to keep the most vulnerable children in school, the economic impact could be felt for generations.”

A global survey of 25,000 children and their caregivers by Save the Children found that the pandemic had kept two-thirds of students away from learning, while the rate of domestic violence doubled and their family’s income plummeted.

The survey produced a series of troubling findings.

Two-thirds of children said they had no contact with teachers during the lockdown, while as few as one per cent in the poorest regions had access to the internet for remote learning.

The survey also found that girls were disproportionately affected, with 63 per cent saying they did more work around house, compared with 43 per cent of boys.

Bill Chambers, the chief executive of organization’s Canadian branch, said Canada needs to spend potentially billions more in poor countries, and work through multilateral organizations to protect an entire generation of children from losing their future.

“Beyond direct funds, Canada must continue to be a strong voice in supporting debt relief in global forums like the G20,” said Chambers.

“Countries should not have to continue to choose between investing in personal protective equipment, helping children to safely access school, food and safety and paying off interest rates.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2020.



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University education program still on hold for inmates across Canada

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As university and college students start school this month, inmates across the country will not have access to a program that offers university credits at no cost.

The Walls to Bridges program has been on hiatus at federal prisons and provincial jails since the start of the pandemic shutdown in March as a safety precaution. It’s not clear when it’ll start again, according to Shoshana Pollack, who founded the program in partnership with Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. in 2011.

The program has been taught in five federal institutions across Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia, as well as several provincial jails. It’s even been expanded to a jail in Paris, France.

The university or college working with the facility helps fund the course for the incarcerated students with the help of community organizations and charities, and then the other half of the class is made up of students from the school.

“We’re the only post-secondary program in Canada that brings people from outside to study with people on the inside,” said Pollack, who’s also a professor in the Department of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University.

The program is an accessible option for students because it doesn’t require an internet connection, which inmates don’t often have access to, said Pollack.

‘Felt like I was a human being’

Rachel Fayter, who was incarcerated at Grand Valley Institution from 2014 to 2017, says she’s concerned for the students who are missing out on the program because of the pandemic.

“For those folks that are locked up, Walls to Bridges might have been their only opportunity to have an education,” said Fayter.

“There’s not very much access to [post-secondary] education, there’s not internet access, the computers are ancient … any kind of mail correspondence you have to pay for the courses yourself. So it’s very difficult for somebody in prison and has no income.”

Fayter, who’s now a third year PhD student in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, says the program changed her life.

It didn’t happen after the first class, but the confidence it gave her changed her outlook. She became hopeful again.

“In the Walls to bridges classroom, it was the first time in probably a year where I actually felt like I was a human being and my voice and experiences were valuable and respected,” said Fayter.

The classes are taught through a learning circle. The idea is to allow all perspectives into the circle, learn from one another and discover how students’ experiences have shaped how they view the world.

‘Don’t know where I’d be’

Since 2011, there have been 559 inmates across the country who have taken courses through the program.

Rachel Fayter (left) and Shoshana Pollack (second from left) with two other alumni of the program. Fayter says the program changed her life. (Submitted by Shoshana Pollack)

Melissa Alexander is another graduate. She was studying computer systems technology at Seneca College in Toronto before she became an inmate at Grand Valley Institution. 

“When you’re inside, you feel like you have no rights,” said Alexander. “Even when you get out you feel like there’s nothing you can do because you have a permanent record.”

Alexander took four courses over three years through the social work department at Laurier. 

Inmates who complete courses then become part of a collective, helping advise the program going forward. She describes that community as pivotal in helping her forge a path for herself after her release in 2017.

“Without this group, I don’t know where I’d be today,” said Alexander, who now is a peer support worker in Toronto and a carpenter apprentice. She also plans to get her degree in social work with a minor in law.

‘It’s a necessity’

Peter Stuart, chief of education at Grand Valley Institution, says when women come into the prison, they’re often hungry to learn. They want to further their education, he says, and post-secondary education is critical.

“This idea that post-secondary education is a perk for offenders, I think is an outdated concept. I think it’s a necessity,” said Stuart.

“In our society, a high school diploma is obviously essential, but it’s not really enough anymore. Especially if you have a criminal record as an obstacle, you need to have not only the same as what other people have, but if anything something more,” said Stuart.

He says the prison looked at different models such as video conferencing to keep the program going through the pandemic, but Walls to Bridges relies on having students from the outside and inside together in one space without barriers.

“The model that Walls to Bridges uses just couldn’t work while COVID protocols were in effect,” said Stuart.

The women have been taking part in literature exchanges and correspondence while the program is on hold, according to Stuart. He hopes the program will start running again in the spring of 2021 at the prison. 

“As soon as we get the go ahead from public health and provincial and federal authorities, we’ll bring it back in immediately,” said Stuart.

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Government of Canada announces ongoing investments to improve railway safety

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OTTAWA, ON, Sept. 17, 2020 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is committed to keeping Canadians safe by improving rail safety and increasing public awareness and confidence in Canada’s rail transportation system.

Today, the Minister of Transport, the Honourable Marc Garneau, announced funding of more than $25 million over three years for the Rail Safety Improvement Program. This investment will support 165 new projects and initiatives that will increase safety and Canadian’s confidence at grade crossings and along rail lines.

The Rail Safety Improvement Program is an essential component of the Government of Canada’s commitment to improving rail safety and preventing serious incidents. In the past four years, $85 million have been invested in the form of grants and contributions.

Today’s announcement includes funding for:

  • 161 new projects that focus on Infrastructure, Technology and Research, including: safety improvements on rail property; the use of innovative technologies; research and studies; as well as the closures of grade crossings that present safety concerns.
  • Four rail safety Education and Awareness initiatives that focus on reducing injuries and fatalities in communities across Canada.

Quotes

“Rail safety remains my top priority, even as we continue to face the challenges of COVID-19. Over the years, our government’s renewed commitment to rail safety demonstrates our dedication to supporting projects that keep Canadians safe, stimulate the economy, and ensure that our rail network remains one of the most efficient and secure rail transportation systems in the world.”

The Honourable Marc Garneau,
Minister of Transport

Quick Facts

  • Grade crossing and trespassing accidents still cause the most rail-related deaths and serious injuries in Canada.
  • Transport Canada is taking action to implement recommendations from the 2018 Railway Safety Act Review report, including improving grade crossing safety and safer interactions of people and trains. Today’s investment complements efforts to bring together a broader range of partners to work with us to find ways to reduce largely preventable deaths and injuries at grade crossings due to trespassing.
  • This year, Transport Canada is funding four public education and awareness activities, 146 grade-crossing improvements including crossing infrastructure projects, 12 grade crossing closures and three technology and research projects across the country.

Related Products

  • Backgrounder – Rail Safety Improvement Program

Associated Links

SOURCE Transport Canada

For further information: Livia Belcea, Press Secretary, Office of the Honourable Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport, Ottawa, [email protected], 613-314-0963; Media Relations: Transport Canada, Ottawa, 613-993-0055, [email protected]

Related Links

http://www.tc.gc.ca/

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Post-secondary students paying for inaccessible services as they study online

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OTTAWA —
Brandon Rheal Amyot is taking on debt to pay about $3,000 in tuition this semester, including fees for services and facilities that cannot be used.

With classes having moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students aren’t on campuses to visit libraries and athletic centres, if they’re even open.

On Thursday, Western University in London, Ont., announced an outbreak of COVID-19 that prompted it to shut down many non-academic activities, including athletics and recreation, as well as in-person events and club meetings.

Amyot, a second-year student at Lakehead University’s campus in Orillia, Ont., was charged fees for recreation and wellness, computer maintenance and supplies for the media studies lab.

The 23-year-old said it’s frustrating that students are paying the same fees for their education while they’re studying online.

“I don’t know what the quality of my education is going to be like,” Amyot said.

The university is doing its best to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, Amyot said, who argued it wasn’t provided with the proper resources by the government.

Lakehead University did not respond to a request for comment.

Brenna Baggs, a spokeswoman for Universities Canada, said post-secondary institutions need to be able to serve and educate students over the long term.

She said the hope is that facilities and services are going to be up and running again in the next semester or the year after that.

“In the meantime, the building doesn’t disappear,” she said.

“The cost of running and renting that building doesn’t disappear. The costs of paying staff to do their work remotely don’t disappear.”

Universities Canada is an umbrella organization that advocates for universities at the federal level.

The University of Toronto didn’t make changes to tuition fees for the fall semester, but it has reduced some student services and student societies’ fees by 10 to 40 per cent.

The Ontario government decreased tuition for domestic students by 10 per cent last year, then froze levels for 2020-21.

However, some international students are experiencing tuition increases of up to 15 per cent, said Nicole Brayiannis, the national deputy chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students.

Some universities outside Ontario are raising their tuition for the fall term despite moving online.

Dalhousie University in Halifax has upped its tuition by three per cent for domestic students. The University of Calgary has increased tuition this year by five per cent for continuing students, seven per cent for new domestic students, and 10 per cent for new international students.

The issues that students are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic are not new, Brayiannis said, but they are worse than before.

“It’s simply been exasperated now, and it’s going to be a struggling reality moving forward,” she said.

She said decades of governments underfunding post-secondary institutions has led to a precarious situation where students are the ones now footing the bill.

She said students shouldn’t be forced to pay fees for services they don’t have access to.

“Students have been left behind throughout this pandemic and they’re really feeling the restraints of that,” she said.

Brayiannis said that holding classes remotely is costly but that shouldn’t be downloaded onto students, especially since that has drawbacks for students too.

Amyot said that studying online is an emotional experience.

“It’s a constant reminder that everything has changed.”

The federation is calling on the federal government to double the federal grant that students can apply for, which is up to a maximum of $6,000 for full-time students.

“That doesn’t even cover the full amount of tuition,” Brayiannis said.

The federation is also urging the federal government to reallocate the up to $912 million originally budgeted for the since-abandoned student-volunteer program and use it to extend the Canada Emergency Student Benefit that ended last month instead.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17, 2020.

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