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May. 28, 2022 | Saturday
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Learning pod is a 'unique situation,' Ministry of Education says
Children learning about plants at the Niagara Alternative Learning Alliance pod in Virgil. (Evan Saunders)

The status of the parent-led learning pod operating out of the old Virgil public school is unclear but the Ministry of Education suggests the pod should be considered a private school.

However, the ministry says the operators' claims of homeschooling complicate the issue.

"This one will end up being a very unique situation," Caitlin Clark, media relations manager for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in an interview.

Clark previously suggested the learning pod should be considered a private school due to the large number of students and location it operates out of.

But Monica McCourt, one of the pod's founders, claimed all of the children involved have handed in letters of homeschooling to the Ministry of Education. 

If a student is registered for homeschooling their lessons are "ultimately delivered entirely independent of the Ministry of Education," she said.

But Clark said the facility sounds more akin to a private school than a homeschooling operation.

"Fifty kids congregating in a building — that's not homeschooling, that's private schooling," she said.

But Clark was not entirely sure about the status of the Niagara Alternative Learning Alliance and said an investigation will take place.

"The ministry is definitely going to look into this to determine if it constitutes a private school for the purposes of the Education Act," she said.

Clark noted that learning pods have been popping up and operating during the pandemic and been in violation of public health orders.

"Ultimately, it came down to public health enforcement to shut them down."

Clark said a private school is defined as an institution that provides instruction during school hours to more than five school-age children on any elementary or secondary school subject.

Private schools operating for the first time in Ontario must submit a notice of intention to operate and pass an inspection, she said.

Clark said the ministry has received no application for the learning pod.

Learning pods have been around for several years. Many of them appear to be used to supplement the instruction children receive in regular or virtual publicly run schools.

Landlord Lloyd Redekopp said McCourt and co-founder Lori Davidson told him their learning pod is exempt from capacity restrictions put in place by the provincial government.

And when it comes to enforcement of capacity restrictions under provincial orders, that is up to local bylaw officials, said Niagara public health spokesperson Alexandra Rankin.

On Monday, Davidson said town bylaw officers had "come and gone" and done nothing.

But an investigation into the pod was confirmed by the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake on Tuesday.

Lord Mayor Betty Disero said she did not know what regulations learning pods were subject to. "I just hope no one gets sick," she said.

However, she said Niagara-on-the-Lake bylaw enforcement officers were investigating the learning pod and will "do what is required or necessary to bring people into compliance if they're not." 

"I have confidence that our bylaw officers are doing whatever actions are necessary to keep people safe," she said.

"There's no way that the town would be condoning or accepting things that are contrary to provincial regulation. We can't, we won't," Disero said.

"These regulations are put in place to protect the health of the public and as much as some people don't like what's going on, they should be complying."

Redekopp said his only rule for the tenants was that they abide by provincial and municipal regulations.

He said he has not received any complaints from other tenants in the building.

The Bikes for Farmworkers organization rents the basement of the old Virgil public school.

Member Terry Weiner said his group strictly adheres to masking and physical distancing, and no one from the learning pod would be allowed into the basement without wearing a mask.

But he said he was not overly concerned with the learning pod, since Bikes for Farmworkers is completely isolated from the rest of the school.

In an email to The Lake Report, a representative of the learning pod said the organization does not have a “vaccination policy in place and it is not something we discuss with people as we believe it is a personal choice and that people’s medical information should remain private.”

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