Online learning has been tough for students across Ontario, but it’s impossible if your family’s religious convictions exclude the internet as a learning tool because it can also be a conduit for immoral or destructive content.
That’s the grounds for a legal challenge to provincial and municipal restrictions on in-person learning filed on Thursday by Yeshiva Yesodei Hatorah (YYH), a private school in north Toronto.
It says Ontario and Toronto “failed to recognize the impossibility of providing adequate remote education and religious services to its unique school population” when restrictions were imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The yeshiva, or Jewish religious school, receives no public education funding and only accepts students whose families accept its “rigorous adherence to religious principles and practices,” administrators said in a statement about the legal action, which claims their religious and equality rights have been violated.
“As a consequence of this bedrock belief, YYH cannot deliver its religious program through internet-based learning platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet,” it said in a statement. “And the provincial regulation places YYH students at a tremendous disadvantage in that the only form of remote learning available to them — telephone — is a grossly inadequate substitute.”
The filing seeks to have lockdown measures struck down in an expedited court hearing after Toronto Public Health earlier this month issued an amended public health order to bolster the provincial lockdown rules and ensure they cover all educational settings following complaints about religious schools skirting the rules.
The school said prior to that move, it was providing religious services to students in gatherings of 10 and was fully compliant with the law.
Toronto Public Health earlier this year said up to 50 elementary and junior high students were taking part in the services of up to two hours duration in the morning and a shorter time in early afternoons, and that some students were being fed while on site.
The school has 445 school-aged children and 225 children in its daycare and kindergarten-aged program, it said, and its non-unionized staff “have consistently expressed an overwhelming desire throughout the pandemic to teach and provide religious services in-person.”
The provincial government on Thursday announced plans to reopen more of the economy starting next month as third wave infections trend lower and vaccination rates increase, but did not say whether it expects to reopen school classrooms before the summer break, which is scheduled for the end of June.
Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer