HWDSB creating virtual elementary school to meet demand in Hamilton during COVID-19

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is creating at least one new, online elementary school to teach students who opt for eLearning as classes reopen in September during the COVID-19 pandemic.

HWDSB will take existing teachers from schools to teach in the new online school, so class sizes won't change

HWDSB is creating a new, online school to teach the roughly 5,000 students who may end up registering into online learning come September. (Juliya Shangarey/Shutterstock)

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is creating at least one new, virtual elementary school for students who opt for eLearning as classes reopen in September during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan means students who opt for online learning will not be attached to their local school. 

Bill Torrens, HWDSB's superintendent of student achievement and programs, told CBC roughly 5,000 elementary students may enrol into online learning, which is "bigger than our biggest school."

"Rather than being students of their neighbourhood school, we will be registering them into a remote day school," he explained.

"It will have many of the features of a normal, regular school, it will just exist online."

The board plans to use its current teachers to teach those kids, but has applied for funding from the Ministry of Education to open a new school and bring on a new principal and secretary to meet those demands.

"There's a good chance we will need to take staff who have been named surplus in the regular day school and have them teach in the remote school because we will need teachers to teach within this program."

That means a larger number of online students will not lead to smaller in-person classes or more physical distancing in brick and mortar schools. In fact, schools with higher rates of online learning will likely need to surrender teachers to the online school instead of using the remaining teachers for in-person classes.

This comes as families in the public board must decide by Tuesday at noon whether they will enrol their children into in-person classes or online learning. Many hoped if more students registered for remote schooling, it would allow HWDSB to form smaller class sizes and create more physical distancing between students — but that won't be the case since school budgets will be based on actual students in attendance.

High schools, meanwhile, won't need a new virtual school to meet the demand for online learning. HWDSB expects 15 per cent of its students will do remote learning.

The board is also meeting Monday to hash out reopening details and potentially announce whether or not a gradual re-entry into schools will occur.

Online and in-person classes to be same size

Torrens said the board may need to ask the ministry for more than just a principal and secretary. HWDSB may even open a second virtual school.

The staffing in elementary schools, including the virtual school, will mostly match the number of students registered.  Online and in-person classes will be similar in size to align with collective bargaining agreements, but there may be the odd exception where an in-person school or classroom will have fewer kids than previously planned without staff being named surplus.

"It's really uncharted territory, we've been working on this for a couple weeks now. There are some unknowns and, to be frank, we may have to make adjustments to what I'm sharing with you as circumstances change," Torrens emphasized.

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He understands parents may be frustrated to hear classes won't get much smaller despite a large number of students moving to online learning. He adds that it isn't as simple as dipping into reserve funds to hire enough teachers either.

The board meeting on Monday night might allow it to use more money, but HWDSB has said it wouldn't be enough.

In its latest COVID-19 update, the board said it would need $76 million to hire the 900 teachers to achieve classes of 15 students.

"My ideal school is where kids can learn in a way they've always learned and engage in all the activities they always have safely and right now, that's not possible with COVID," Torrens said.

"All those thing that make school great and keep kids coming back to school every day, I just hope we're able to bring all those things back."

Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local, told CBC families shouldn't hope that class sizes will shrink because enough parents think in-school learning is too unsafe for kids.

"We would hope the ministry funds us properly, that way parents can be confident when they send their kids to school, they actually get quality learning and teaching," he said.

He said while some may pin the blame on the board, the ministry has made it hard for HWDSB and others to prepare for September.

"I'd be surprised if it were only 5,000 students (learning online) ... the board is often put in situations where they're going to have to violate at least one collective agreement if not both," Sorensen said.

"The only way to get smaller classes is to hire more educators ... anything else is shifting numbers around."

Online French immersion at HWDSB

Torrens said a lot of parents have asked about French immersion.

Right now, HWDSB is waiting to see enrolment numbers before it says it is able to offer French Immersion online. 

"If we're not able to provide French Immersion in the remote school, if families decide to return at one of the three key periods during the school year or the following school year, they can return to the program, pending space."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.