Pod operation is now under investigation by provincial, regional and town authorities
More than 50 children and volunteers are gathering every weekday in Virgil in a maskless, non-distanced private learning pod known as the Niagara Alternative Learning Alliance.
“Everybody is against masking children. I don’t think that I’ve actually met someone who is OK with it, ever, and I have a lot of friends,” project co-founder Lori Davidson said in an interview on Monday.
Davidson started the learning pod with longtime friend Monica McCourt, both 38 and from St. Catharines, as a way to promote a more personal style of education for children and to bypass COVID-19 safety protocols in schools.
The pod opened at the beginning of January. Classes run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each weekday in the old Virgil public school on Four Mile Creek Road.
After questions from The Lake Report, the Ministry of Education said it is looking into the school's status.
As well, the Region of Niagara, Niagara public health and Niagara-on-the-Lake's bylaw department on Tuesday initiated a joint investigation into the pod in order to address "concerns raised regarding (the) Old Virgil Public School," the town's communications manager Lauren Kruitbosch said in an email.
"Our bylaw staff has been on site to investigate and are working co-operatively with the governing bodies. As this is an active investigation, the town is not able to provide any additional information at this time."
Davidson said the curriculum is mainly based on provincial government educational requirements. Learning pods have existed for a number of years and often are used to supplement students' regular schooling but during the pandemic they have proliferated as a full-time alternative to traditional schools.
It is unclear whether the Virgil pod is violating Ontario masking and indoor gathering regulations.
The operators said they are not subject to some rules for various reasons, two of them being that they have created a "bubble community" and a "parallel society."
The school's operators also told a reporter on Monday that public health had been in to inspect and had OK'd the operation. However, a public health official said it had no record of visiting the school prior to that conversation.
"The kids don't go anywhere else but here and they're here Monday to Friday from 9 to 3," McCourt said.
"We're a bubble community and because we're a learning pod we have a bubble like family unit."
"We've kind of created a parallel society where (children) can exist and be children and if anybody feels vulnerable then they can go and take care of their own needs," Davidson said.
Regarding capacity restrictions specifically, Davidson said the pod doesn't have more people in a classroom than any other pod in Ontario. On Wednesday morning, she confirmed there were at least 20 kids in one classroom, not counting adult volunteers.
After renting space in the former Virgil school building last fall, McCourt and Davidson set about organizing their learning pod.
One reason was to "mitigate all the trauma (children have) been through for the last few years" during the pandemic, McCourt said.
“I am done messing around with not taking care of the children,” Davidson said.
She said she was spurred to act after reading a news article that said suicide attempts among youth had increased during the pandemic.
“That’s my line in the sand. We are taking care of the children now.”
Davidson is a mother of four and two of her younger children are now getting their education at the Virgil pod.
Her four-year-old daughter “has never been to a real school,” she said.
Once pandemic restrictions began affecting schools, “I pulled my kids out immediately. I didn’t agree with the mask mandates.”
One parent said masking was potentially more harmful to students than beneficial.
“I have seen no science that would back up that. All the studies looking at wearing masks, including children, have generally found it to prevent infection of COVID-19 without really any kind of significant harms,” Dr. Mustafa Hirji said.
McCourt said the final straw in her frustration with the environment created for children during the pandemic came when her daughter got sick.
“One day she caught a cold and she didn’t want to come near me,” McCourt said.
“I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘I’m afraid if I come near you I’m going to kill you.’ And that’s when I was like, ‘Something needs to change.’ ”
“The traumas that these kids have been put through and their families have been put through during these last two years —we’re trying to fix it.”
“Society is creating a generation of victims, right?” Davidson said.
On Monday, the learning pod was full of adult volunteers who wanted to lend their time and skills. Davidson said at least one of every child’s parents has volunteered and they regularly have about 15 volunteers in the building.
There could be as many as 60 people split between two classrooms in the school on a weekday. None of them wore masks or adhered to physical distancing guidelines when a reporter visited.
Davidson said there are no policies to govern learning pods and the program did not need to apply for a licence or interact with the provincial or federal governments at all in order to operate.
“There’s absolutely zero policy on this and they’re all over the country,” she said.
“There’s absolutely nothing stopping anybody (from operating a pod). They’d have to create a policy.”
“If they try to shut us down, everybody’s just going to say, ‘No. Not possible,'” she said.
Current provincial lockdown regulations state there can be no indoor social gatherings of more than five people. The pod has some 60 people, unmasked and un-distanced, split between two rooms every day.
But McCourt said Niagara's public health department inspected the pod. “They were literally just like, ‘OK, great,’ and left.”
On Tuesday, Public health spokesperson Alexandra Rankin said the agency has no records of an inspection of the facility taking place.
She also said she knows of no reason why a learning pod would be exempt from public health orders regarding gathering limits.
Davidson said members of Ontario’s trucking industry reached out to her and offered support if a governing body tries to close the pod.
“They said if anybody tries to shut us down they will be here,” she said.
“They’ll back us. If, for any reason, we need them, they’re here,” McCourt said.
“Nobody’s going to mess with us,” Davidson added, drawing a laugh from McCourt.
McCourt said the learning pod doesn’t discriminate between families who do and don’t wish to follow COVID-19 safety regulations. She said all are welcome, even kids who want to wear masks to class.
Despite the political undertones, McCourt stressed that the pod is "not a facility that is involved in politics. We are not anti-government, anti-mask, anti-mandates or anything like that. We are a group of families who are worried about the mental health of our children."
For some of the parents and the founders themselves, the pandemic was just another issue that created a wedge between them and a school system in which they say they had lost faith.
Several parents said they had issues with the institutionalized, non-personal style of traditional schooling.
“I found that the education system suppressed the ability for (my children) to truly express themselves,” said parent and volunteer Lyndsey Bailey.
“Not everybody can be treated the same and I feel that education is exactly the same.”
With a rough ratio of one volunteer instructor for every five students, Bailey said her children are getting a more hands-on education at the learning pod.
“Being able to be fully immersed and involved with their education and to take a bit of control into my own hands gives me a sense of comfort,” she said.
McCourt said public frustration around pandemic regulations enabled the idea to grow.
“It gave us a voice. It strengthened us,” she said.
“I think COVID really pushed a lot of people to dig down deep inside and find the true meaning of what it is (sic).”
McCourt and Davidson said starting their operation in Virgil is just the beginning for the Niagara Alternative Learning Alliance. They hope to open learning pods across the region.
Davidson said the public has been trying to help make that happen.
“People have been offering us schools in Smithville, Ridgeway. We have parents who drive here from Tillsonburg,” she said.
She said the learning pod has received some 200 emails from parents who want to enrol their students but no more can be taken on due to limited space.
Davidson is waiting to find out if she can rent more rooms at the Virgil school to expand the pod.
Davidson used to run a restaurant in St. Catharines, but said it closed recently for reasons other than the pandemic. McCourt owned a spa in St. Catharines but did not find the work fulfilling, she said.
The two said they had previously talked about opening a learning pod but laughed off the idea. When McCourt saw space for rent in the old Virgil school last fall after closing her spa, she knew immediately what she wanted to do, she said.
McCourt said she has never had a job as rewarding as running the learning pod and that she wakes up excited to get to work everyday.
The pod is also aimed to be affordable. Davidson says there is no strict cost and parents are asked to pay what they can.
The kids are split into two groups, ages four to six and seven to 13, Davidson said.
One of the volunteers is Audrey Bailey, Lyndsey's sister, who said she previously worked for an English children’s daycare in Chile.
She said children are evaluated in one-on-one meetings so the volunteers can understand their educational level and build a curriculum around each students' needs.
The school also plans to stress teaching “practical” skills, such as sewing and changing a tire, McCourt said.
“We’re trying to bring that back to the education system for children and teach them basics,” she said.
“We call it special skills development.”
Davidson cited an example.
“Remember how everybody was freaking out about ivermectin (a drug approved in Canada to treat parasitic infections) Like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to get this medication,’” Davidson said.
“Calm down. Calm down. It’s just a parasite cleanse. You can do this at home.”
Davidson said she recommends pumpkin seeds as an alternative to taking ivermectin.
Hirji said anyone concerned about a parasitic infection should consult their doctor.
One volunteer teacher, Mike, who did not want to give The Lake Report his last name because he works for the District School Board of Niagara, said he loved the energy of the learning pod.
“I am a teacher. I’m just volunteering here. It’s a great spot,” he said.
Mike said he is teaching the kids holistic character-building lessons and poetry.
McCourt said Mike reached out to her and asked to get involved.