This report explores how learning continued in Ontario’s independent schools during the continuous and disruptive school closures of the 2020–21 school year. It also investigates the financial, promotional, and business impact of these disruptions.
Ontario experienced two waves of high COVID-19 infection rates during this time period—one beginning in September/October 2020 and cresting in early January, and another beginning in early March 2021 and cresting in early April—resulting in a combined three to four months of remote learning (depending on the school and region) in the 2020–21 school year. (This does not include the previous school year’s months of remote learning, from March to September 2020.) Multiple school closures through the year, differing from region to region (and, in some cases, notice about impending closures given at the end of the school day, to be implemented the following day) meant that schools needed to navigate transitions exceptionally well, to have a solid plan in place covering multiple contingency plans, and to do so while providing solid curricular support, creative assessment, and meaningful social connection for students.
In May 2021, we surveyed school leaders from seventy independent schools affiliated with one Christian school association in Ontario (an 83 percent participation rate). Of responding schools, almost three-quarters are elementary schools (71 percent), and just over three-quarters (77 percent) have fewer than three hundred students.
Resilience of Sector
The survey finds that overall Christian independent-school enrolments increased in the sector over the previous year, led by elementary schools (70 percent experienced growth since fall 2020). However, twice as many secondary schools (60 percent) experienced enrolment decline as growth (30 percent), while JK–12 (junior kindergarten to grade 12) schools had slightly more enrolment growth (50 percent) than decline (40 percent).
When not in lockdown, the schools almost entirely provided face-to-face learning, except for families who particularly wanted remote learning (44 percent of schools provided this option). The schools went over and above public health orders in ensuring student and staff safety, through health and safety measures, scheduling modifications, space-usage adjustments, and curtailing numerous non-academic activities.
During lockdowns, the secondary schools continued to offer all courses remotely, while elementary schools focused on literacy and numeracy, Bible, and social studies and science. It is notable that many schools reported providing regular physical packages of learning materials for their students—especially for younger students. Generally speaking, as students got older, they were engaged in more hours of synchronous learning per day, except in secondary school, where the majority of schools (52 percent) reported between just one to three synchronous instructional hours per day.
Another critical area of insight relates to student support services (formerly, special education). Only one percent of surveyed schools discontinued these services, while 70 increased or continued with the same level of support. (By contrast, local district school boards struggled to find staff to fill these positions, leaving students in the public system with limited options for continuing their education during lockdown periods.)
Independent schools in Ontario are unusual in that they do not receive government funding for the education they provide, unlike the 75 percent of independent schools in Canada outside Ontario and the large majority of non-government schools around the world. 1 Instead, tuition and fundraising constitute the entirety of revenues. COVID made both difficult. Fully 60 percent of schools reported offering tuition assistance to families, and 64 percent either decreased fundraising sales and events or stopped them altogether. But interestingly, 76 percent saw monetary donations either increase or continue as normal.
When asked about government assistance programs, 89 percent reported that they took part in the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and 50 percent used the Canada Emergency Business Account.
Staffing needs varied considerably, depending on whether the schools were in government-mandated lockdowns. When not in lockdown, at least 80 percent of schools in all categories—elementary, secondary, and JK to 12—either increased staff or maintained staffing levels. But 56 percent had to make layoffs due to lockdowns.
When asked about their top concerns, school leaders overwhelmingly pointed toward the effects that the school closures and remote learning had on their various stakeholders. Some of the highest levels of concern were related to student mental health and academic performance, and the stress levels, workload, and mental health of teachers and school leaders.
As with the emergency school closures in the spring of 2020, these independent schools showed an ability to transition quickly and nimbly between in-person and remote learning. They also showed an ability to adapt to the unique needs of their individual learning communities. School leaders were able to respond to local circumstances, student needs, and age ability of students, to form a type of education that worked for their school.
Whether the question is education delivery, community connection, or school operations, the story of Ontario’s Christian independent schools reveals resilience, agility, malleability, care, and resourcefulness. Overall, the findings point to a COVID success story. The generosity and adaptability of Christian independent schools and their communities are in part due to the autonomous nature of independent schooling in Ontario and may hold promise for future school design and delivery in other settings (including government-operated schools). However, the Ontario government’s failure to equitably support the health and safety of all students in the province is also highlighted in this report and cannot be dismissed in future reviews of government policy and action during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Debate about governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic will continue for many years. In particular, the practices of closing specific sectors, limiting mobility, and implementing stay-at-home orders will be the subject of much scrutiny. The social, emotional, and economic implications will continue to be studied for years to come. This report builds on studies that have already been undertaken, through a quantitative and self-reporting study of a small group of Christian schools in Ontario concerning the 2020–21 school year. Data from this study can be fruitfully compared with data from an earlier study, completed during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. 2
In March 2020, schools in Ontario were faced with the notion of school closures for the first time in living memory. 3 The province was in the preliminary stages of grappling with a pandemic for which non-pharmaceutical interventions, which were largely unheard-of before, would become commonplace. On March 12, Ontario schools were ordered closed and remained closed through to the start of the 2020–21 school year. On June 19, 2020, the Ontario government released its first version of its “Guide to Reopening Ontario’s Schools.” 4 This document, which has been revised a number of times since its initial release, provided guidance for Ontario schools to reopen for the 2020–21 school year, outlining the recommended and required health and safety precautions that schools in Ontario would need to take in order to operate. The precautions included daily screening, physical distancing, student cohorting, use of personal protective equipment, and were put in place to ensure that schools could continue to operate.
Ontario experienced two waves of high COVID-19 infection during this time period: one beginning in September/October 2020 and cresting in early January 2021, and another beginning in early March 2021 and cresting in early April. During the first of these waves, schools stayed open in Ontario until their scheduled two-week Christmas break after December 17, 2020. On December 21, the Ontario Ministry of Education announced that schools would stay closed following the Christmas break and would not return to in-person learning until at least January 11, 2021. 5 On January 11, some Ontario school buildings were allowed to reopen, as Ontario took a regional reopening approach based on certain key public-health indicators. All schools in all regions returned to in-person learning on February 16. 6
On February 11, 2021, the government announced that the scheduled March break would be delayed until mid-April. 7 While students in Ontario were out of school for the delayed spring break, it was announced that schools would not be returning to in-person classes following the break. 8 Although schools continued to anticipate a return to in-person learning, the government announced on June 2 that schools would continue with remote learning to the end of the school year.9
This report explores how learning continued in these independent schools during the school closures of the 2020–21 school year. It also investigates the financial, promotional, and business impact of these disruptions.
Christian independent schools in Ontario, like those in the Atlantic provinces, receive no government funding for operations or capital. This sets them apart from their counterparts in Quebec and to the west. On average, 96.6 percent of revenue is derived from tuition and fundraising. 10 According to previous research, families that choose Christian independent schools do not fit the elitist stereotype that many people may assume. Instead, they are largely middle-class families whose incomes and occupations are similar to those of other families who send their children to publicly funded schools. 11 These families report choosing an independent school because “it is safe,” “instills confidence in students,” and “teaches students to think critically and independently.” In addition, families of religious independent schools report choosing them because they “support their values,” are engaged in “teaching right from wrong,” and reinforce “their faith or religious beliefs.” 12
This report is based on data gathered and analyzed through an online survey. (Additional tables are provided in Appendix A.) This report’s authors developed an online questionnaire, and Edvance Christian Schools Association distributed it in May 2021. It was modeled on the “Pandemic Pivot” survey that Edvance launched in May 2020 and that Cardus published in June 2021. 13 Like the first survey, this second one is adapted from a survey of Christian schools that was designed, administered, and reported on by the Association of Christian Schools International. 14 Potential survey participants were the principals (or school heads or delegates) of the eighty-four schools affiliated with Edvance. Access was distributed by email on May 13, with a letter of explanation and invitation to participate. Three additional reminders were sent between May 13 and May 31. The questionnaire was closed at 11:59 p.m. on May 31, 2021. Survey limitations are discussed in Appendix B, and the full questionnaire can be found in Appendix C.
The survey had a participation rate of 83 percent. Of Edvance’s eighty-four schools, seventy participated in the survey. Fully 96 percent of respondents identified themselves as principals, with 3 percent also identifying as teachers, and 4 percent identifying as “other” (interim principal, principal’s assistant, or administrative assistant). Table 1 shows the number of participants in each school-level type and the total number of schools at each level. Figure 1 shows the percentage breakdown of respondents by school type: elementary (typically JK–8), secondary (typically grades 9–12), and elementary and secondary (typically JK–12).
School Size and Grade Level
In fall 2020, the eighty-four schools had a combined enrolment of 15,130, rising to 15,366 by spring 2021, with an overall median school enrolment of 149.5 students as of June 2021. The participating schools were near representative of all Edvance-affiliate schools in terms of school size, with a median student population of 162.5 in fall 2020 and 166 in June 2021. Respondents were also representative in terms of grade levels offered.
Throughout this report, school size is defined in terms of student enrolment by head count. As shown in figure 2, just over one-quarter (26 percent) of participating schools had fewer than 100 students, just over one-third (34 percent) had 100–200 students, less than one-fifth (17 percent) had between 201–300 students, almost one-fifth (19 percent) had 301–400 students, and only three schools (4 percent) had student enrolment over 400.
Respondents were asked to report their enrolment at time of survey completion. These data were compared to the enrolment data that schools submitted to Edvance at the beginning of the 2020–2021 school year. Seventy percent of elementary schools showed an increase from the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021, while half of JK–12 schools reported an increase. Seventy percent of secondary schools, on the other hand, reported either decreased or stagnant enrolment over the same time period (figure 3). In terms of actual aggregate enrolment numbers, Edvance schools who responded to this survey grew by 236 students (1.6 percent) from September 2020 to the time of survey close.
Elementary schools saw an increase in enrolment far above that of secondary or JK–12 schools. Perhaps this was due to these elementary schools providing a dynamic, engaging program that parents felt was missing in their previous school environment. Or, perhaps the secondary offerings were seen as equal to that of other school sectors, and parents made the choice to move to a tuition-free education given this perceived parity. There were also fewer international students in the 2020–21 school year, due to travel restrictions. The portion of international students would have been larger in secondary than in elementary, which might also contribute to the enrolment drop.
Education Delivery When Not in Lockdown
Half of respondent schools offered some type of remote learning for their students during normal face-to-face learning times, either primarily in-person with remote as an option (44 percent), or fully blended (7 percent). Nearly half (46 percent) of respondent schools offered only in-person instruction in 2020–21. No schools offered strictly remote learning in any category (figure 4).
Survey participants indicated that a large percentage of their school year was spent in-person. Forty-six percent of elementary schools delivered only face-to-face learning, and another 46 percent focused primarily on in-person learning but offered an online option even when school buildings were open. They saw a need to focus on keeping elementary students engaged with face-to-face learning, when possible. A hybrid system was more common for older students. As such, it is not surprising that secondary schools, at 60 percent, were the most likely to have some students opting for remote learning amid a primarily face-to-face school orientation. Those schools that did offer a hybrid or completely virtual option did so based on specific student/family preference to participate in remote learning during the pandemic. The remaining 40 percent of secondary schools offered only in-person instruction. Exactly half of JK–12 schools offered only face-to-face instruction, 20 percent were primarily in-person with the option of remote learning for those desiring it, and 20 percent blended in-person and remote learning for all students.
Scheduling When Not in Lockdown
Respondents were asked to choose from a list of scheduling modifications that was based on provincial and local recommendations and requirements. Among all school types, the most frequent scheduling modification was using cohorts of student groups (figure 5). Fully 100 percent of elementary schools implemented this precaution, whereas 90 percent of secondary schools and 90 percent of JK–12 schools did so. Less frequently, schools implemented measures such as staggered schedules, concurrent instruction, and reduction of rotary classes. Least frequent among all school types was modifying start times and alternating schedules, which was mostly implemented by JK–12 schools.
Overall, schools used a variety of techniques and approaches to improve buildings safety for their staff and students. The items outlined in the province’s re-opening plan were followed, as they were appropriate to each school, with student cohorts being utilized through almost all schools. The real story is in the “other” section, which details measures that schools took that were not listed and were outside the provincial parameters to make schools safe. List 1 demonstrates that independent schools have a nimbleness not afforded to public school boards, because independent schools can be responsive to their school culture, location, and in this case even specific COVID-19 threats on an individual school basis. It also demonstrates schools’ creativity in addressing specific problems. Provincial policy, and even policy of local school boards that apply district-wide, prevent or impede schools’ ability to make decisions that work for them but might not work for another school, even if they are located nearby.
Other Scheduling Modifications:
- Smaller classes/cohorts;
- Early dismissal to allow for carpool traffic;
- Rotation of classes, with teachers rotating rather than students;
- Staggered recess times and washroom breaks;
- Additional recesses to give students a break from masks;
- Increased recess spaces to accommodate individual cohorts;
- Reduced school week, with some subjects done at home with family;
- Shorter school day for all students;
- All secondary students taking four courses and attending in person (with students rotating turns in a supervised overflow classroom when the room capacity does not accommodate the number of students in the class);
- Shorter in-school hours daily, with a block of asynchronous time daily done away from school;
- Live subject stream into classrooms instead of rotary.
Health and Safety When Not in Lockdown
We asked respondents to identify the precautions that they took that exceeded provincial and regional regulations. The most common additional precaution was the regular sanitization of shared materials, with 89 percent of all schools reporting this precaution (figure 6). Most schools (84 percent) asked their employees to wear personal protective equipment that exceeded provincial and regional standards. Interestingly, elementary schools were far more likely (72 percent) to reduce their class sizes than were secondary schools (50 percent) and JK–12 schools (60 percent). Although some additional health and safety precautions were not requirements for schools to implement, many schools chose to take these extra precautions.
Respondents were also given the option to state other safety precautions not listed as part of the survey. These answers varied but demonstrate again the ability of individual schools to respond in a nimble, creative manner based on their needs, the resources that they had available, and the ability to reallocate funds or materials in a way that was most useful to them.