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Virtual schools face challenges getting started across Canada during COVID-19 pandemic



‘We’re flying the plane as we build it,’ says Regina school official

Some Canadian parents might have looked longingly at neighbouring provinces getting the option of distance learning this school year, but getting virtual schools off the ground has proven to be a tricky undertaking.

With many parents feeling left in the dark, postponements, enrolment lists in flux, technical hiccups and teachers still being hired or reassigned as classes begin, heading back to school online this fall has gotten off to a bumpy start during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of ‘I don’t know’ and ‘we’ll figure it out as we go.’ I’m a planner, so that kind of stuff makes me very anxious,” said Ashley St John, a Toronto mother of a blended family of five children between two months and 12 years old.

Because St John is currently on maternity leave, she said she feels lucky to be able to choose online learning for her school-aged children — a decision made because two members of her multigenerational household are immunocompromised. 

But school-related emails being sent to an outdated address and no followup phone calls forced her to rush around to confirm that her kids had indeed been enrolled in virtual school this fall.

“I have zero faith that they’re organized…. The feeling I get is that they don’t have a plan, they’re not prepared,” she said.

Ashley St John speaks to Dianne Buckner about the postponement and what this means for her blended family.  6:58

Parents in Calgary are also decrying a lack of key information and details about the Calgary Board of Education’s Hub online learning program, which was slated to begin as early as Monday.

“We just don’t have any information as to what time we need to be home and in front of our computers to be able to let the kids connect with their teachers,” said Tamara Rose, who is working from home full time due to multiple autoimmune diseases. 

Rose said she feels frustrated: She wants to be able to schedule her video meetings for work apart from the time her daughter, Scarlett — who had expected to start Grade 2 virtually this past Monday morning — will need the computer for school. She also needs to juggle the times her seven-year-old will join her grandfather outdoors for some physical activity, like hiking.

“We’re kind of all just in the dark right now,” she said.

Though some parents have received emails identifying their children’s Hub teachers, what school supplies will be needed and details of their kids’ virtual school day, others — like Rose — are still waiting. 

“Some moms are sitting there hitting refresh [on their email] all day,” she said.

‘A monumental task’

Creating virtual classes for so many students — and then staffing and supporting them accordingly — has been “a monumental task,” Toronto District School Board chair Alexander Brown said Tuesday morning, a day after Canada’s largest school district announced it was once again delaying the start of its virtual option. 

The TDSB has begun a staggered entry for in-class learning this week, but its virtual school will now start on Sept. 22, with the latest postponement due to a large influx of families — about 72,000 students from the board’s roughly 250,000 total enrolment — opting for online learning. 

“That’s bigger than most school boards in Ontario. We’ve seen increases of over 6,000 in just the last couple of days, and we are expecting that to grow,” said Carlene Jackson, the board’s interim director of education.

“We did decide to allow parents to have choice and flexibility in terms of whether or not they wanted to send their children in person or do online learning,” she said, clarifying that Tuesday was the deadline for virtual school. “We do need the additional time to get the additional teachers in place and to develop those timetables.”

The Toronto public board isn’t alone: School boards in Peel Region, Hamilton-Wentworth and Waterloo Region were among the other Ontario districts that announced delays to the start of virtual learning in recent days due to a significant last-minute uptick in sign-ups, which has required reassigning or hiring many more teachers.

“It’s a buyer’s market right now for teachers. They’re needed all over the place…. There’s a huge teacher shortage right now,” said Patrick Etmanski, head of the Waterloo unit of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association. 

“They’ve delayed the online stuff because they can’t find people to do the work.”

E-learning can overload internet  

Getting the Calgary Board of Education’s massive virtual effort ready has taken a Herculean effort over the past weeks — from finalizing the student registrations to reallocating existing teachers and hiring new ones, said Joanne Pitman, the board’s superintendent of school improvement. 

She said that earlier communication from the board — which included a link to some independent assignments to familiarize students with online learning — had indicated that real-time instruction would begin sometime this week. 

“We’re actually, in under two weeks, reassigning and building in over 700 teachers to be able to support the just under 20,000 students who have registered for Hub,” Pitman said.  

Anticipating the complexity of a brand-new virtual offering was why Regina Public Schools chose to start its e-school program the week after beginning a staggered in-class return, said Terry Lazarou, the board’s supervisor of communications.

“We have to build infrastructure. We have to get it staffed. We have to do all of the stuff necessary to have that work successfully,” he said Tuesday. This initial week would be “very much a ‘getting to know you'” experience for elementary students, but “actual learning” for high-schoolers, he said. 

“There were obviously hiccups,” Lazarou said about Monday’s inaugural day of e-school, which has about 2,000 students enrolled. A server exceeded capacity and prevented anyone from logging in for about 20 minutes before being quickly resolved, he said.

“We’re very reliant on infrastructure that everyone else in the province is also using. The internet is a lovely thing, but it’s not magical. When volume goes up or when other things happen, it’s susceptible to overuse sometimes.” 

Moving forward, Regina Public Schools is focused on improving its offering, Lazarou said. Key will be ensuring that technological systems stay “robust enough to be able to handle the need” and that all families in e-school continue to have the equipment and internet access required to participate online. Officials are also making the necessary accommodations for students with intensive needs. 

“There is a lot more work that needs to be done,” Lazarou said. “We’re flying the plane as we build it…. This is going well, but everything can go better. And we’re working on ensuring that it does go better.”

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce urged patience as “tens of thousands” of students get started virtually from kindergarten to Grade 12 this school year.

Referring to the fact that even without COVID-19, class numbers typically fluctuate somewhat before settling later in September, Lecce told a daily Ontario press briefing on Monday that there will indeed be consolidation — and perhaps reorganization — of classrooms in some regions this fall. 

“While we’re seeing the migration of tens of thousands [of students] … it creates operational challenges for boards,” he said. “It’s not an excuse, but it’s important context for families to understand.”


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US Embassy employee in Ukraine dies after she was found unconscious by railway




US Embassy employee in Ukraine dies after she was found unconscious by railway

A US Embassy employee in Ukraine has died in a suspected murder near railroad tracks in a park, police said.

The American woman, who was not identified, was discovered unconscious Wednesday with a head injury, wearing running gear and headphones near a railway that passes through a park in Kyiv, police said.

The woman, who had her US embassy ID badge on her person, was brought to the hospital, where she later died, authorities said.

Police said they’re searching for a dark-haired man between ages 30 and 40, who wore dark shorts and a T-shirt, and may have been responsible for beating the woman to death.

Interior Ministry spokesman Artem Shevchenko shared photos of the scene on Facebook where the woman’s body was found.

“The National Police of Ukraine is investigating her death as a deliberate murder … but an accidental death is not ruled out,” he wrote.

In a statement, the US embassy said they were “heartbroken” about the death of the colleague.

“Officials from U.S. Embassy Kyiv are currently working with authorities to determine the circumstances of the death,” the embassy wrote on Twitter.

With Post Wires


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Former Georgia police chief says he was fired because he’s white




Former Georgia police chief says he was fired because he’s white

A white former Georgia police chief who was fired amid accusations of racial profiling was axed because of his race, he claims in a new lawsuit.

Dwayne Hobbs, the former top cop in Forest Park, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city in US District Court in Atlanta claiming he was fired in 2018 because he’s white and the Forest Park City Council wanted a black person to head the department.

“The City Council members that terminated Mr. Hobbs did so only after declaring that they wanted to install an African American Chief of Police and ‘move in a different direction,’” the lawsuit claims.

Hobbs, who joined the department as a police officer in 1973, was terminated by a 3-2 vote by council members in October 2018, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

The firing came on the same night as city lawmakers were set to approve Hobbs’ retirement package, which included 24 months of severance pay and the renaming of a firearms training facility after him, the lawsuit states.

The package had been already approved by the city’s attorney and manager when the Forest Park City Council “unlawfully terminated” Hobbs, according to the filing, which seeks damages to be determined by a jury.

Hobbs’ replacement, Nathaniel Clark, who took over the department last year after a nationwide search, is black, the Journal-Constitution reported.

Hobbs’ attorney, meanwhile, declined to say Wednesday which council members he suspects said that they wanted to replace Hobbs with a black chief, the newspaper reported.

Council members Dabouze Antoine, Latresa Akins-Well and Kimberly Jones, who are black, voted to fire Hobbs, according to the newspaper.

Hobbs was fired amid accusations of racial profiling in his department, which he denied, WSB-TV reported. An audit a year later found that he told officers to spy on Akins-Well and Antoine because cops suspected them of voter fraud and illegal drug activities, the station reported.

Clark – Hobbs’ replacement — ultimately found no evidence to substantiate the allegations against Akins-Well and Antoine and city officials asked for an investigation into the former chief by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which turned over its findings to the Clayton County District Attorney’s Office in May.

The status of that case was unclear Wednesday, the Journal-Constitution reported.

Forest Park’s mayor, meanwhile, flatly dismissed Hobbs’ claims when reached by the newspaper for comment while refusing to discuss details of the lawsuit.

“But let me be very clear, the allegation is an absolute, complete and utter farce,” Mayor Angelyne Butler said.


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Homicide, hate crime investigation needed into death of Joyce Echaquan, say lawyers




Lawyer says video shows Echaquan ‘met with contempt’ while dying

The Quebec medical staff captured in an online video spewing racist insults while treating Atikamekw woman Joyce Echaquan shortly before her death should be investigated by police for hate-motivated homicide, according to legal experts.

Echaquan, 37, a mother of seven, died Monday in a hospital in Joliette, Que., about 74 kilometres north of Montreal, after filming some of the last moments of her life on a Facebook video. The video captured Echaquan screaming in distress, along with the voices of staff members insulting her.

“They acted callously, they acted in a way they knew was unsafe, they acted with hatred, they acted with negligence and they killed a woman after uttering racist comments,” said Amir Attaran, a professor in the Faculty of Law and School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa.

Attaran said that based on Echaquan’s anguished complaints that she was being overmedicated, along with statements by family members that she was allergic to morphine and had heart problems, the medical staff should be investigated for criminal negligence causing death for negligently administering her drugs. 

In addition, he said their insults — calling her “stupid,” saying that she was “only good for sex” and lamenting that their tax dollars were “paying for” her health care — show racism played a role in how medical staff treated Echaquan, which opens up the possibility this was also a hate crime. 

“This was motivated by prejudice against Indigenous people and that is clear from their comments,” said Attaran, who is also a practising lawyer.

“You have those two aggravating factors: an abuse of the position of trust and the motivation driven by prejudice or racism.” 

One nurse has been fired

On Tuesday, Quebec Premier François Legault said one of the nurses who treated Echaquan has been fired. The province said her death is being investigated by the coroner and the health unit.

Quebec’s provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec, said it hasn’t yet opened a criminal investigation on the death but that it is collaborating with the coroner’s office. The Quebec police said that a criminal investigation may hinge on the results of the autopsy. 

The province’s nursing body, L’Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec, said in a statement it was also looking into the case and denounced “the racism suffered” by Echaquan. The organization said it couldn’t provide details of its actions for confidentiality reasons.

Alisa Lombard, a partner with the law firm Semaganis Worme Lombard, which is representing two Indigenous women in an ongoing lawsuit against Ottawa and Saskatchewan over coerced sterilization, said police should have immediately opened a criminal investigation.  

“There needs to be a thorough police investigation and that investigation has to be full and professional and must include a full investigation of any criminal misconduct, whether partly or fully motivated by a hate crime,” said Lombard. 

“Not undertaking this kind of investigation would be further demonstrative of the contempt held by the health-care providers for Indigenous people. Joyce, when she was dying, was met with contempt. Their remarks show… hate and really clear racism.”

Not bad apples but a ‘putrid orchard’

Lombard said studies, reports and inquests — like the one into the 2008 death of Brian Sinclair, the double-amputee who died in a Winnipeg hospital from sepsis after spending 34 hours in an emergency waiting room — have repeatedly shown that Indigenous people suffer from racism within the health-care system. 

“It’s discrimination, it’s hate and it’s causing death,” said Lombard. “Something has to be done and it has to be done now.”

Premier Legault denied Tuesday that Echaquan’s death was a result of systemic racism. He has steadfastly denied that the problem exists in Quebec.  

However, a Quebec commission led by Justice Jacques Viens concluded in a September 2019 report that Indigenous people in Quebec were the victims of systemic discrimination when it comes to receiving public services.

Lombard said Echaquan’s death is not a case of simply some bad apples in the system, as Legault suggested. 

“What we are looking at is a putrid orchard and that orchard needs some serious attention,” said Lombard. She also asked, “How many times has [Legault] attended a hospital with an Indigenous person in his life?”

Hospital could face civil liability

David Schulze, a Montreal-based lawyer who is representing 22 former day school students from Echaquan’s home community of Manawan, Que. — who are suing Ottawa over sexual abuse — said the Joliette hospital is also facing significant civil liability from Echaquan’s family. 

“If they caused her death, they are liable for damages that are pretty significant. There is a separate issue that her estate inherits [Echaquan’s] right to sue for the abuse that she suffered before her death,” said Schulze. 

“I think that the hospital is on the hook. It’s hard to imagine how they wouldn’t be.”

Joliette is about 184 km south of Manawan and is the largest nearby centre, where most of the population does its shopping and accesses public services, like the hospital.

Schulze said Manawan is a community that has suffered trauma throughout its history, including losing its land base to forestry and hydro development. Manawan also doesn’t have cell service and has unreliable electricity and internet access. 

“Their way of life was on the territory and that territory is decimated, and now they were shoved into this under-serviced, under-funded reserve, pushed into this institutional abuse, day schools, residential schools and hospitals,” said Schulze. 

“This is something non-Indigenous people do not understand very well.”


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Facebook tightens political ad bans as U.S. election nears




Company also bans ads that ‘praise, support or represent militarized social movements and QAnon’

Facebook Inc. on Wednesday banned ads on its flagship website and Instagram photo and video sharing service that claim widespread voting fraud, suggest U.S. election results would be invalid, or which attack any method of voting.

The company announced the new rules in a blog post, adding to earlier restrictions on premature claims of election victory. 

The move came a day after U.S. President Donald Trump used the first televised debate with Democratic challenger Joe Biden to amplify his baseless claims that the Nov. 3 presidential election will be “rigged.”

Trump has been especially critical of mail-in ballots, and has cited a number of small, unrelated incidents to argue that fraud was already happening at scale.

Facebook has been under fire for refusing to fact-check political ads more broadly and for rampant organic misinformation.

Citing hate speech rules, it also moved Wednesday to remove Trump campaign ads suggesting that immigrants could be a significant source of coronavirus infections.

Facebook has outlined the steps it’s taking to protect the integrity of the U.S. election. It will remove ads promoting voter fraud, and will not allow new political ads in the week leading up to the election, but there are concerns the plans don’t go far enough. 1:53

Facebook said the new election ad prohibition would include those that “portray voting or census participation as useless/meaningless” or that “delegitimize any lawful method or process of voting or voting tabulation … as illegal, inherently fraudulent or corrupt.”

Facebook also cited ads that call an election fraudulent or corrupt because the result was unclear on election night or because ballots received afterward were still being counted.

QAnon banned from platform

The company added that as of Sept. 29, it has banned ads that “praise, support or represent militarized social movements and QAnon” from its platform.

QAnon followers espouse an intertwined series of beliefs, based on anonymous web postings from “Q,” who claims to have insider knowledge of the Trump administration.

Starting Wednesday, Facebook will direct people to credible child safety resources when they search for certain child safety hashtags, as QAnon supporters are increasingly using the issue and hashtags such as #savethechildren to recruit, the social media company said in a blog post


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Liberal government to spend $10B on infrastructure to fuel pandemic economic recovery




Initiatives such as broadband, clean energy and agriculture aim are part of economic recovery plan

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna make announcement in Ottawa. 0:00

The Liberal government is spending $10 billion in infrastructure initiatives such as broadband, clean energy and agricultural projects as part of its plan to boost growth and create one million jobs after the pandemic pummelled the economy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna will announce details of the plan for the Canada Infrastructure Bank plan during a news conference at 11 a.m. ET, and is carrying it live.

The plan has five major initiatives: 

The Liberal government’s throne speech promised to create more than one million jobs to rebuild from the pandemic.

The $10 billion announced today is part of the CIB’s $35 billion pot of federal investments.

In a statement, CIB chair Michael Sabia said the federal money aims to leverage additional money from private and institutional investors.

“In that way, the CIB can have bigger impacts that benefit Canadians and Canada’s economy,” he said.


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RCMP watchdog raises serious concerns about strip searches




Iqaluit detachment specifically called out for removing bras

The watchdog for the RCMP says the force has problems with the way it justifies strip searches and needs to better train members about the controversial practice.

In a report made public today, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) found the rationale and documentation for strip searches “is often lacking.”

It specifically calls out the detachment in Iqaluit, where members removed bras.

“The commission found that the RCMP’s national personal search policy (including cell block searches) is unclear and inadequate, and that divisional policies pertaining to strip searches are either inadequate or inappropriate, often due to their reliance on national policy,” notes the report, which is dated Sept. 30 and was released Thursday morning.

“The RCMP’s inability to evaluate and report on policy compliance has a chilling effect on public accountability, self-evaluation and independent review.”

Many Mounties unaware of personal search policies

The report from the independent oversight body also reveals that many Mounties are not aware of personal search policies and that no mandatory training exists beyond basic instruction to cadets at the RCMP depot.

It also recommended more specialized supervisory training on personal searches from senior personnel.

“The commission is particularly concerned with the inadequate supervision of members, lack of articulation on files, and overall lack of knowledge of what constitutes a strip search at the Iqaluit detachment. Interviews revealed that bras are routinely removed and searches are video-recorded,” notes the report.

In one 2015 case, officers forcibly removed a woman’s bra and left her topless in cells, said the CRCC. The woman broke her arm as she tried to resist the officers removing her undergarment and medical care was not provided within a reasonable period, according to the report.

Top court found strip searches ‘degrading’

Today’s findings follow up on a 2017 report that found “significant shortcomings” in the RCMP’s personal search policies, which included strip searches.

CRCC chairperson Michelaine Lahaie said the RCMP has made a number of positive changes over the past three years and now better distinguishes between personal searches and strip searches.

“In spite of the strides made by the RCMP, the CRCC found that further clarification on national policy is required,” she wrote.

In a letter to Lahaie, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki agreed with most of the 2020 report’s findings.

Both CRCC reviews follow a 2001 Supreme Court case that ruled that strip searches are “inherently humiliating and degrading.”


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Blacks, Latinos in California cited for minor offenses at higher rates than whites: study




Blacks, Latinos in California cited for minor offenses at higher rates than whites: study

Blacks and Latinos in California are cited for minor non-traffic infractions at far higher rates than their white counterparts, a new study found.

The findings, released Wednesday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, found that black adults were up to 9.7 times more likely to be cited for minor offenses like loitering or jaywalking.

Latinos, meanwhile, were up to 5.8 times more likely to receive citations than white adults in the same jurisdiction.

The study analyzed data for non-traffic citations issued by California’s 15 largest law enforcement agencies between July 2018 and December 2019.

“We spend millions of dollars discriminatorily enforcing these non-traffic infraction laws against black and Latinx people,” Elisa Della-Piana, the group’s legal director, said in a statement.

“The fines and fees are largely uncollectable, but the debt burden, warrants and arrests cause significant harm.”

In Los Angeles, black residents were 3.8 times more likely to be cited for non-traffic infractions than whites between 2017 and 2019, receiving 30 percent of all such citations by the LAPD during that time span despite comprising 7 percent of the population, the study found.

The LAPD also issued 63 percent of all “loitering-standing” citations to black residents, the study found.

Data from police in Long Beach, meanwhile, showed that black adults were 3 times more likely to be issued infractions from 2017 through 2019 — comprising 36 percent of all of citations issued despite making up just 11 percent of the city’s population.

A similar pattern was also found in San Diego, where black adults were 4 times more likely to be written up for minor infractions than white residents, data showed.

“The results are harmful,” according to the study’s authors. “As other studies have documented, even brief encounters with the police can be traumatic, and officers are often more disrespectful to Black and Latinx people.”

No one who received a citation was fined less than $100, with most getting penalized between $250 and $500, the study found.

The LAPD did not respond to a request for comment on the study by the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper reported Wednesday.

A spokesman for police unions in San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles, meanwhile, insisted cops are not biased while on the job.

“When it comes to enforcing the laws, we focus on behavior — not color, not race, not creed, not religion and not sexual orientation,” spokesman Tom Saggau told The Mercury News.

“Police don’t create the laws, and if these attorneys don’t want quality-of-life crimes enforced, they should talk to legislators.”


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Air Canada orders first batch of 25,000 rapid COVID-19 testing kits




New tests can detect coronavirus within as little as 5 minutes

Air Canada has ordered its first batch of rapid tests to detect the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 0:00

Air Canada has ordered 25,000 testing kits that can detect COVID-19 in someone in as little as five minutes, a key hurdle for an industry that’s desperately trying to make it safe and possible for travellers to fly again.

The first batch of tests will be for employee volunteers, now that the devices by Abbott Laboratories have been approved for use in Canada by federal health and safety authorities, the airline said Thursday.

Current tests have to be administered at testing centres, which have been plagued by long lineups, and results can take days.

The new test is faster and requires a nasal or throat specimen to be collected from a patient on a swab and inserted into an analyzer to detect the presence of the virus. Positive results come back in as little as five minutes. Negative results can take about 13 minutes to verify.

The airline is moving ahead with the plan after a testing phase when it partnered with McMaster University and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to test arriving international travellers at Toronto’s Pearson airport.

“Preliminary results from the study indicate testing can help protect customers and facilitate the safe relaxation of government travel restrictions,” Air Canada said.

More than 13,000 tests

Since the test began on Sept. 3, more than 13,000 travellers have been tested.

More than 99 per cent of the tests came back negative. Of the less than one per cent that came back positive, more than 80 per cent were identified on the initial test, while the rest were detected with a followup test seven days later.

“We believe testing will be key to protecting employees and customers until such time as a COVID-19 vaccine is available,” said Air Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jim Chung. 

“Rapid testing is also a means to enable governments to relax current blanket travel restrictions and quarantines in a measured way while still safeguarding the health and safety of the public.”

Airlines have been hit harder than many other industries, as fears of the virus have walloped demand for travel, and border restrictions have limited the number of flights that airlines are even allowed to offer.


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