Gabriella Swan gets down to her studies at home. Michael Swan

Virtual classrooms a lesson in patience

By 
  • April 19, 2020

Gabriella Swan is coping well with her online classes. She finds online math classes harder, but the classes are shorter — 45 minutes as opposed to 75 in school.

The Grade 10 student at St. Paul’s Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont., recognizes that without face-to-face contact and regular testing it will be more difficult for teachers to evaluate students. But from her perspective the challenge is to remain focused and motivated, she said.

“It’s a lot harder to stay focused. I’m in bed and everything,” she said.

And with her dog to play with, the weather warming up and no classmates around to talk with, the Ontario Scholar is tempted to think she has more time to complete assignments than she actually does. She recognizes “I can just keep putting it off,” but so far she has stayed engaged in the Google classroom as she doesn’t want her grades to slide.

With distance learning becoming the norm for Canadian students for the near future, Swan and all the other education partners are coming to grips with a new reality that will have its ups and downs and won’t be the same for all.

It’s not in any way what anyone could have envisioned — not educators, parents or students — but it’s the best that can be done in this time of pandemic, say these partners.

“It is very early days so there are going to be some teething pains,” said Liz Stuart, president of OECTA, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association. “I think the messaging we’ve been giving members, parents and students, quite frankly, is everybody needs to be forgiving of one another because this is new for everybody. We are trying to find a path forward that is as common as possible across the province.”

As executive director of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education (OAPCE), Annalisa Crudo-Perri agrees with Stuart.

“Last week was surely a learning curve for many people, parents, teachers and most importantly students,” said Crudo-Perri of week one of online schooling after schools across the province and Canada shut down in mid-March to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Still, that didn’t keep the concerns from pouring in to OAPCE’s Toronto-based office. Chief among these surrounded connecting to the system, either from families without the resources to engage online or those in rural Ontario where the infrastructure is an issue.

“We have received comments and concerns mainly to do with the equity piece, with students not having the technology and how the parents are coping with getting curriculum to their children,” said Crudo-Perri. “And we are hearing from our parents in rural areas that still have dial-up Internet, or no Internet at all.”

The technology issue was something all the partners had anticipated. School boards have been working on getting devices to students without them to allow for participation in distance learning, and OAPCE is encouraged by what some boards have been able to achieve, including the Toronto Catholic District School Board which had planned ahead by surveying parents to understand technology-related needs.

The Ontario government has had an online portal since schools were closed, and Catholic school boards have been providing faith-based activities to maintain the Catholic perspective in learning.

“I think everybody recognizes this isn’t going to be business as usual and this isn’t going to be about forwarding curriculum,” Stuart said. “Truly, it’s not really possible in this situation. Let’s keep the connection going. Let’s make sure the kids have worthwhile, constructive learning activities to do.”

Stuart and teachers are well aware of the differing needs from one end of the vast province to another, saying, “What works in Toronto would not work in Kenora.” It’s why she said it’s important to let those on the ground, the teachers, use their skills to overcome such issues.

“Let’s let teachers, with some structure provided from school boards, really use their professional judgment on the best way to serve the students they know so well,” said Stuart.

Crudo-Perri, however, would like to see more consistency across the province. OAPCE has been in contact with the Ministry of Education and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce seeking clarification on how lessons are being delivered.

“Some teachers are using video-conferencing to teach lessons and connect with the students whereas some are not,” she said.

Some parents are having a difficult time juggling work responsibilities and furthering their children’s education. One mother who has a Kindergarten and Grade 2 student at an east-end Toronto school is having a hard time. She and her husband both work in the financial world and are wrapped up in their work as their institutions work on the fly with governments dealing with emergency subsidies. (She did not want her name used in this article to save her children from repercussions at school.) She believes her children’s teachers are asking too much of parents in an already stressful situation, which in turn has led to a backlog in assignments.

Crudo-Perri has heard similar concerns where students are being assigned work and expected to have it completed the same day on top of all their other studies. It’s raised concerns about online tests for a curriculum that is new and may be barely understandable to students, and also led to worries about failing grades.

“Can students fail a course in this long-distance learning?” she asked.

It’s a steep learning curve for all involved, and no doubt one which will involve much learning on the fly.

(With files from Michael Swan)

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