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Thursday, July 7, 2022
EXCLUSIVE: Education ministry cracks down on maskless Virgil ‘learning pod’
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*This story has been updated with new information learned at a Superior Court appeal hearing Friday morning. A Ministry of Education lawyer said the ministry had ordered the operators of Niagara Alternative Learning Alliance to cease all operations after an investigation found the operators defied a Jan. 27 compliance order to reduce the operation to five children or less. The school has now been ordered by the court to cease all operations.

 

The Ontario Ministry of Education has ordered the owners of the Niagara Alternative Learning Alliance to reduce their operation to only five children or face a $250,000 fine and potential jail time, The Lake Report has learned.

The “learning pod,” led by Lori Davidson and Monica McCourt, started hosting maskless, non-physically distanced classes in early January with as many as 50 children and another 15 volunteers in space rented at a former public school building in Virgil.

After inquiries from The Lake Report, the ministry, Region of Niagara and Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake all launched investigations into the learning group.

The results of the region and town investigations are not yet known.

Ministry officials issued a protection order under the Child Care and Early Years Act on Jan. 28, one day after The Lake Report first published a series of stories about the pod.

It requires the operators to reduce the number of students to no more than five children under the age of 13, a ministry representative said in an email.

“Failure to comply with a protection order is an offence under the Child Care and Early Years Act. A person convicted of an offence under the (act) can be liable to a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment for a term of not more than one year, or both.”

The ministry also emphasized that the learning pod has not been registered as a private school or a child care program in Ontario.

The ministry said its investigation is ongoing and that it would not comment further.

The order is subject to an appeal, according to a copy of the order posted on the building's exterior door.

On Wednesday, when a reporter phoned McCourt to ask for the school's position on the ministry's action, he was told to “get lost” and she immediately hung up.

In an attempt to find out if the pod is abiding by the order, a reporter visited the building in which it is housed but McCourt barred the entrance and called the police, claiming she was being “harassed” and “stalked.”

The reporter did not enter the building and remained professional and polite.

McCourt followed the reporter to his car, shouting out his description and licence plate while on the phone with the Niagara Regional Police Service. 

While there, the reporter saw about 20 children playing in the school yard but it is not known if any were inside the two classrooms the pod rents.

On Feb. 6, Davidson and McCourt appeared in a video on the Facebook account of Mary Ann Petry, saying they had an upcoming court date with the Ministry of Education and pleaded their case to the public.

“What we are is a community of families who have removed our children from the school system. As parents, it is our legal right to educate our children as we see fit outside of the ministry, under article 26, section three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” McCourt says in the video.

The article in question states, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

The preceding sections note that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” and “elementary education shall be compulsory.”

Among other stipulations, Ontario’s Education Act states that unlicensed child-care means “the child care is provided for no more than five children at any one time.”

In the video, McCourt called the case against her pod an attack on all homeschooling programs.

“We have been subject to scrutiny by the Ministry of Education. They are attacking the homeschool communities and this affects all of us,” she said.

“If they shut us down, they are shutting down all learning pods and homeschooling communities,” Davidson said in the video.

McCourt further said there is “no policy or precedent for how many children can participate at a community homeschool co-op,” and that this case would set a national precedent.

The Lake Report did not receive a response from the ministry relating to the video or the court case prior to deadline on Wednesday afternoon.

The story so far

In January, a reporter from The Lake Report visited a new learning pod in Virgil named the Niagara Alternative Learning Alliance operating out of the old Virgil school on Four Mile Creek Rd.

The reporter discovered the pod had more than 50 children and volunteers attending the pod daily. There was no masks or physical distancing, even though provincial regulations limited gatherings to no more than five people  indoors due to COVID-19.

The pod's operators, Lori Davidson and Monica McCourt, said they launched the pod to give children a restriction-free alternative to traditional schools, where masking and physical distancing are the norm.

They contend they are a homeschool operation and that all participating families have registered with the province to provide homeschooling for their children.

They also said they had received support from protesting truck drivers in Ontario who would help prevent them from being shutdown.

“Nobody’s going to mess with us,” Davidson said.

Beyond issues surrounding COVID-19, the pair said they wanted to provide a more community- and personal-based learning alternative to traditional schools.

They have been teaching quantum physics to four-year-olds and skills-based lessons such as small engine repair and how to make your own hand sanitizer out of vinegar.

After inquiries from The Lake Report, the Region of Niagara, public health, Niagara-on-the-Lake bylaw department and the Ministry of Education all launched investigations into the pod.

Read more about the pod school here:

Top doctor says rules are needed at Virgil alternative school

Learning pod is a 'unique situation,' Ministry of Education says

Parent says she fears COVID restrictions can cause 'lifelong trauma'

A day in the pod: No homework and quantum physics for four-year-olds at Virgil private school