With the deadline for registration for online classes well passed, it is clear the majority of parents across the province will be sending their children back to school in a few weeks.
In the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board (KPRDSB), only 16% of students were signed up for online instruction delivery by the August 19th deadline. By default, all other registered students are headed back to the classroom. This quick turnaround left the School Board with only a few weeks to ensure class sizes and accommodation meet the provincial guidelines and to staff new online instructor positions. Financially, school boards are indifferent to the delivery mode selection, as funding for students is the same for both options.
Many parents chose in-class delivery with the understanding that if things go badly, their children will stay home and switch to the on-line option. While school boards are aware of this unspoken contingency plan, a switch may not happen as quickly as one might expect. School boards may not be able to accommodate requests to switch from in-class to on-line delivery instantly, particularly if an event triggers a widespread shift in demand that creates a need for additional on-line classes and teachers.
Secondary students are following a condensed schedule with two courses delivered over a nine week period. Delivery mode request changes for these students will likely be possible only at the start of a new semester due to limits on course availability, existing enrolment and the material remaining to be covered in the courses.
Teachers in the Learn at Home option will deliver the same curriculum as teachers in the classroom, but their students will be in a variety of locations and likely attend different schools. Online class sizes will also be capped along with those in schools, not out of safety concerns, but to manage teacher workloads. The province has mandated a minimum amount of time that must be spent in “synchronous learning” for online classes, where teachers deliver live, real-time teaching. During this time, students in the online class are connected to the teacher and to each other, allowing direct interaction that is visible to all in the class. For all grades above kindergarten, this occurs at least 225 minutes each day.
Online learning brings a variety of advantages and disadvantages, even in academic outcomes. Attendance in online classes will be monitored and students will have access to their teachers to get help with school work. One of the biggest challenges for on-line learning delivery is evaluation. Without actually witnessing students work through assignments, it is difficult to know if they have mastered the content. This issue was avoided during last school year during the pandemic as work completed after schools were closed did not impact student grades. In higher grades when marks begin to impact decisions like post-secondary admissions, the importance of evaluation based on competence increases.
The recent decision by the KPRDSB to dip into their reserves to increase their efforts to support the health and safety of students and staff is a welcome gesture indicating their commitment to prevent issues from arising. The $5.5 million will supplement provincial funding to enhance school safety and will be directed to hiring more custodial staff, additional teachers to reduce some class sizes, possibly leasing additional space to accommodate extra classes where school space is limited, and more staff to develop and deliver the virtual, online Learn at Home program.
This week, staff have begun to work through the nitty-gritty of new protocols, trying to understand how classrooms can function in this new normal. Parents should be prepared for more announcements about changes in their community schools in the days ahead. These changes should be greeted with patience and appreciation rather than exasperation: consider them to be evidence of genuine efforts to keep families safe while preparing children to meet the future. KG