Canada

A 'real balancing act:' Ont., P.E.I. public schools kick off home learning amid COVID-19

Hundreds of thousands of Canadian public school students went back to school without leaving home on Monday, as a new learning-from-home framework amid the coronavirus pandemic officially got underway in Ontario and Prince Edward Island.

Teachers, students, parents weigh in on how Day 1 went

Implementing learning from home amid the coronavirus pandemic 'is an unprecedented state of affairs ... and it's not going to be perfect,' says John Ippolito, a York University education professor and father of three. (Submitted by John Ippolito )

Hundreds of thousands of Canadian public school students went back to school without leaving home on Monday, as a new learning-from-home framework amid the coronavirus pandemic officially got underway in Ontario and Prince Edward Island.

Here are six snapshots from teachers, students, parents and educational experts about how it went and what they're hoping for in the weeks to come.

A teacher's day

Ottawa high school teacher Aatik Chopra scheduled practice teleconferencing sessions to avoid connectivity issues when he reached out to students Monday morning. 

"I think it went smoothly, but you'd have to ask my students," said Chopra, who teaches grade 11 and 12 classes at Lisgar Collegiate Institute.

Because of a current lack of clarity about what's expected from them, there is low incentive for students to participate as diligently learning at home than they would normally at school, says Ottawa high school teacher Aatik Chopra. (CBC)

He's concerned that online lessons might not be ideal for some students and worries about the quality of what he can offer them.

"The attendance in the physical classroom was great; online sessions are a whole different story.... It's really hard for me to guarantee students have access to a computer and a consistent, safe environment for learning during the time of my classes," Chopra said.

"It's really difficult to guarantee that the curriculum is being taught at the right pace and the same richness of education is being delivered when the sessions are online."

He also thinks there is a lack of clarity from Ontario's education ministry about what students should expect of their revamped school year — and that could affect their motivation.

"At first [students] thought they were not [going to be marked]. But now there's communication that there might be mid-term marks posted ... so they're not really sure as to the importance of their efforts as of today and in the coming weeks." 

That, he says, means there's "low incentive for them to participate as diligently online."

A student's day

Jaden Segal-Braves, a student at Toronto's McMurrich Public School, found the initial batch of offerings from his teachers Monday a little underwhelming. 

"It's not a huge amount of work.... There's definitely not more than an hour of work to do at the moment," noted the sixth grader, who said he was assigned a Canadian history project, a journal entry and some math lessons he was expected to learn independently but was not required to turn in.

Toronto sixth-grader Jaden Segal-Braves was underwhelmed with what he was assigned on the first official day of school at home, and misses the personal interactions and hands-on learning he's used to. (CBC)

"It's not really as academic as I'd think it would be. It's a lot more of, like, 'Do what you want' work," Segal-Braves said. "And considering that it's all on computer is also not great."

Segal-Braves said he misses the hands-on style of learning and problem-solving he usually experiences at school, along with the in-person interactions with teachers and friends.

"I think school is not really about what you're learning. It's a lot more about the social relationships that you build and just getting to connect with people," he said.

A rural parent's day

Siobhan Krasnozon, who lives on a small farm near Amherstburg, Ont., received a tablet and a laptop from the Windsor Essex School Board as learning-at-home resources for her two school-age kids, one in junior kindergarten and the other in Grade 2. 

Siobhan Krasnozon, who lives on a farm near Amherstburg, Ont., was frustrated with assignments for her two school-age kids that relied heavily on internet access. (Submitted by Siobhan Krasnozon)

But she's frustrated and feels at a disadvantage because her family lacks reliable internet service — what they have proved too slow for some of the initial assignments she received. For instance, one task called for her son to record and submit an audio message using an app that takes her hours to download.

"Most of the time when we attempt to play a video on YouTube, it won't play — it's just too much internet for what we have."

While the school board is aware of those challenges and her children's teachers have been in phone contact, "they don't have a solution," Krasnozon said.

"The kids are starting to get a little upset and frustrated because they're getting assignments that they can't do. I'm concerned that it may not be fair and equitable for all."

A city parent's day

Pharmacist Lisa Gallant was surprised how excited and happy her two high-schoolers were to get back to doing schoolwork on Monday and, aside from a quickly sorted printer glitch, everything went well. 

Now, however, they're hungry for more.

"I do hope the bar is raised higher in the long term," said Gallant, who runs a Charlottetown pharmacy with her husband. 

Charlottetown pharmacist Lisa Gallant said her kids are eager for more of the regular school curriculum in the coming weeks. (CBC)

"Our kids are very concerned about finishing their curriculum. Both of them want to learn what they are supposed to learn so that they can do well next year."

That's especially true for their daughter, who is in Grade 12 and taking courses such as physics, calculus and chemistry in preparation for university in the fall.

"I hope that the department of education is just starting us off slow so everyone can get used to the process," Gallant said.

While she appreciates the hard work teachers have put in thus far to deliver learning at home, "I would like them to try [and deliver] as much of the curriculum as they can."

She says if her kids aren't occupied with the curriculum, "they are just all day watching TikToks."

A teaching professor's day

A professor in York University's faculty of education as well as a father of three elementary school children, John Ippolito shared a message of calm to families navigating the rapidly changing system, as well as optimism for what learning at home and e-learning might bring.

"This is an unprecedented state of affairs and the response to it is an unprecedented one — and it's not going to be perfect," Ippolito said Monday morning from Mississauga, west of Toronto. 

Learning at home will be a balancing act between getting families to take it seriously but not making it mandatory and thus punish those lacking access, says Ippolito. (CBC)

"The real balancing act here is between getting kids and families to take the online learning seriously, but at the same time not making it mandatory in such a way that it's going to punish some families who [aren't] positioned to take full advantage of the resources [being shared]."

He says he sensed a mix of anticipation and anxiety in his eighth-grader, his sixth-grader and his second-grader, so he made a deal with them that homework would get done early in the morning so they wouldn't have to worry about it for the rest of the day.

Ippolito is confident that teachers know their students and, even remotely, will be able to gauge their performance "with a wide-angle lens that takes takes into account not just how students are doing their homework but also all of those other mitigating factors that might have an impact on how well they're able to respond" during this pandemic.

He predicts that the next few weeks will prove a tremendous opportunity for teachers and students to develop new skills.

"As we turn our attention into what that new normal is going to look like, the lessons we're learning now are going to be really helpful in how we shape that new normal."

Education expert weighs in 

Beyhan Farhadi, a researcher examining the relationship between e-learning and educational inequality, emphasized that this rapid implementation of learning at home across the country comes amid a state of emergency.

'The assumption that we have parents ready to sit there and do this work, the assumption that we have students ready with the space and technology and the mindset available to learn — these are huge privileges that not every family is afforded,' says Beyhan Farhadi, a Toronto teacher and researcher into the relationship between e-learning and educational inequality. (CBC)

For some students, emergency remote instruction will mean physical materials and not simply going online, said Farhadi, who advised against thinking about technology as the "magic bullet."

"The assumption that we have parents ready to sit there and do this work, the assumption that we have students ready with the space and technology and the mindset available to learn — these are huge privileges that not every family is afforded.

"I know that even in my senior grades for high school I'm going to see a drop in engagement, because no matter the circumstance — but specifically in a state of emergency — we will be seeing students unable to self-regulate and exercise the kind of discipline that we would expect."

Farhadi, also a Toronto high school teacher, is concerned about unfair expectations being put on everyone — students, teachers and families — and encourages people to show empathy in the weeks ahead.

"I think compassion is a really good place to start, not judging why it is that one teacher might be moving a little bit more quickly than another." 

About the Author

Jessica Wong

Senior writer

Jessica Wong is a senior writer for CBC News, based in Toronto.

With files from CBC's Deana Sumanac-Johnson, Nigel Hunt and Natalie Kalata

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