‘We don’t have any say.’ For TDSB’s adult learners chaotic planning and a lack of online options threatens to halt their education

Desrine Peters, 43, moved to Canada 10 years ago from Jamaica and had been working in security, but found there wasn’t much room for progress in the field. “I was finding myself not accomplishing my goals,” she said.

Peters is now a first-year student at Seneca College in the chemical lab technician program, and has plans to continue studying biochemistry. She credits her adult day school teachers with motivating her and encouraging her to continue her studies.

Two years ago she began taking classes at the TDSB’s Emery Adult Learning Centre to complete high school credits needed for her college program. When the COVID-19 pandemic created hiccups in education and moved things online in the spring, she finished that semester and took summer school so she would be able to continue to college this fall.

But for students who were looking to return to adult day school this quadmester, the chaotic planning and unequal online class offering is threatening to halt their education, as well as putting teachers and students at risk, and exacerbating problems with adult education in Ontario that have been overlooked since 1997.

The issues have prompted Ontario Education Workers United to plan a rally Tuesday evening “calling for the TDSB to stop discriminating against ADS students and teachers,” said a press release.

Since before the school year started, teachers and students have been asking the board to simply move all adult learning classes online and to supply laptops to make it possible.

Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the TDSB, says that there are two adult schools that began offering online learning just after the quadmester began, Scarborough Centre for Alternative Studies and City Adult Learning Centre, which he said was based on a registration survey conducted in August.

But students and teachers say the communication has been challenging to keep straight, and not all students know what’s available, or feel able to transfer to another school to take virtual classes.

Peters says she has friends who had more courses to complete, but because the school they were attending didn’t offer an option for online learning, like elementary and secondary students were offered, they decided to either pursue other options, like private college, or drop out entirely.

“My heart is broken to see that those students [won’t] get the opportunity that I got from those teachers to put them to the next level they deserve,” she said.

Kimlyn Christopher, 34, has plans to become a nurse, and says she was only given the option to attend in-class at Emery, the learning centre she attended in previous years. Though the decision was difficult as a single mom, she is still continuing with classes in-person while her children attend school virtually and her youngest daughter is in daycare.

“I have plans, I want to apply for college next September,” Christopher said.

But she says when she looks around her in-person classes these last few weeks, it’s usually a party of four — the teacher, two other students, and herself.

Christopher says it feels like, “We don’t have any say.”

In-class learning features a rotation of one in-class lesson and three online lessons per cohort in scheduled time slots. The combination of the schedule interfering with jobs the students may have and health concerns is resulting in students not attending.

Many adult students are caregivers or front-line workers. Many are also parents, lower-income, racialized and/or newcomers to Canada, according to a 2015 TDSB census, and often living in areas of the city hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers, students and education advocates who spoke to the Star say that this increases their concerns about spread of the COVID-19 virus and influences their decision to attend when virtual school is not an option.

Jamie Smith is an adult educator who used to teach at City Adult Learning Centre. "I think that adults deserve a high quality education that is at least the same quality as young people," said Smith. "If we are serious about making Canada a just society, and destination for newcomers, and a place that includes everyone, we need to have pathways."

Jamie Smith, an adult educator who used to teach at City Adult Learning Centre, said he finds it “very strange” that survey results suggested that there was only appetite for online learning at two schools.

He said prior to the pandemic students were very interested in distance learning and thrived with direct guidance from a teacher, so the online learning model should have been favoured.

“I think that adults deserve a high-quality education that is at least the same quality as young people,” said Smith.

“If we are serious about making Canada a just society, and destination for newcomers, and a place that includes everyone, we need to have pathways.”

And it’s not just students affected, but also teachers.

For the adult day teachers that are still working through the pandemic, like Mercy Yulien, these first weeks of school have been exhausting, she said.

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Between prepping for in-class and online courses across multiple cohorts, speaking in class with a mask on and trying to minimize the talking among her students for safety reasons, she said, “It’s a balancing act that I could have never imagined when I became a teacher … who could have predicted this?”

Mercy Yulien, a current adult education teacher, says these first weeks of school have been exhausting. She is also worried about "huge gaps in learning" as she's noticed students attending in-class sessions less consistently than their online sessions.

Yulien is also worried about “huge gaps in learning” as she has noticed students attending in-class sessions less consistently than their online sessions.

“There needs to be equitable access for learning, regardless of where you are on the board,” she said.

Leslie Wolfe, the current president of Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), appreciates that TDSB had its share of stress when it came to pandemic planning for the year, but said: “In the midst of all of that, adult learning centres wound up where they usually do: not even on the back burner, but not even on the stove.”

Issues with adult day school education date back to 1997, when former premier Mike Harris’s government opted to make a wide range of cuts to education, which prompted the largest North American teacher strike at the time and had a lasting impact on adult education.

Wolfe was a full-time adult education teacher for seven years up until the 1997 provincial changes.

She said that in the late ’90s, the funding for students 21 years of age and over was moved from the regular high school funding lines, and into the continuing education lines, which includes night school and summer school. The Harris government also upped the number of hours required that an adult student needs to be in class for schools to receive even that funding in full.

As a result, adult day school learners receive only about a third of the funding per student compared to younger day school students, Wolfe says.

It is a division of funds that has remained the same through four subsequent premiers and one the OSSTF has been trying to draw attention to for years.

“There is an arbitrary cut-off point at age 21. And if you are 20, you get to go to school and have full access to special education, guidance, et cetera. If you’re 21, you are simply cut off,” Wolfe said.

A 2015 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says that the difference between secondary and adult day program funding in Ontario was approximately $20 million.

The funding cuts meant that adult learning centres would have less money for teachers and supplies, and many boards reduced the number of schools offering classes. In the TDSB, there are just five schools offering adult day school.

For teachers, these positions went from being permanent full-time contracts with benefits, to hourly, to model summer school and night school. The problem is, adult day schools operate more like typical secondary schools, running fall to spring. Rather than night and summer school which is usually staffed by teachers picking up extra, temporary work and have benefits through their regular jobs during the year.

To this day, adult school teachers are treated differently than secondary school teachers, despite the fact that they teach the same curriculum. They do not receive the same benefits, are paid by the hour and in the summer many have to take EI when they do not have a class to teach. Their jobs are also at risk if classes are cancelled, which some worry will happen due the COVID-19 complications and lack of online offerings at most TDSB schools.

Smith, who had to make the decision not to return to teach at an adult school and instead teach at colleges this school year, said “This job, because of the pay and benefits, it functions as a sort of second choice for a lot of people. And that’s unjust. It should be the first choice for excellent adult educators.”

He said he wishes governments would see that, “This is an opportunity for us to really improve our society by investing in the adult students.”

Angelyn Francis
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering inequity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: [email protected]

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