Nfld. & Labrador

Chromebooks en route as N.L. schools move online, says education minister

About 10,000 more Chromebooks are coming in the next week or two, says Minister Tom Osborne, to cover off all Grade 7 to 12 students who need devices for online learning.

Virtual classes to begin by Thursday at the latest

Virtual learning will be in place by Thursday at the latest for all grades in the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District. (Colin Butler/CBC)

All students in Newfoundland and Labrador will make the switch to online learning by Thursday, despite a continued lag in the Chromebooks ordered last summer, as the English School District sets out a staggered schedule to get children into virtual classrooms under a reshaped education landscape for at least the next two weeks.

"Obviously this is a significant shift and we fully anticipate there may be some bumps in the road in the early days of this transition," said Education Minister Tom Osborne in Monday morning's update on schools and regulated daycares — the latter of which are permitted to operate with restrictions.

Alert Level 5, triggered late Friday with the confirmation that the B117 coronavirus variant is now circulating in the province, abruptly closed all schools outside of the Avalon Peninsula, which had shut earlier in the week with online learning either begun or scheduled to by Tuesday at the latest. 

High school and intermediate grade students outside the Avalon will begin virtual classes no later than Wednesday, with primary and elementary grades starting no later than Thursday, said the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District in a release Sunday.

Osborne said there was "positive feedback" on how the first days of online learning had unfolded in the St. John's area.

"We have learned a lot from the unexpected school shutdown in 2020," Osborne said.

Schools are open Monday to retrieve technology devices and essential items like medication only.

While schools have been suspended until at least Feb. 26, district CEO Tony Stack said a return to class as soon as possible is the ideal, but reality will hinge on public health.

"From a district perspective, we're prepared for online learning as long as it has to go," he said.

Chromebooks coming

The board does have existing devices, such as Chromebooks, in its inventory to help with that effort. However, there are only about 2,000 Chromebooks within the English district at the moment from the board's order of 30,000 placed last July, an order that Osborne said was the third-largest amount of any Canadian jurisdiction. The order has been hampered by worldwide shortages of microprocessors, according to Stack.

About 1,500 of those Chromebooks are in the Labrador area, with another 500 being configured "to fill immediate gaps," said Stack. In December the district updated the list of students who don't have devices, and there's enough technology to meet those needs, he said, if any more families speak up.

The NLESD stressed that Chromebooks aren't required for online learning, and if a student has their own laptop, tablet or other device they should not ask for one.

As it stands, "we believe we have enough devices for every Grade 7 to 12 student who doesn't have one," said Osborne.

Another 10,000 Chromebooks are coming "within the next week or two," he said, but will need to be configured before they can be used.

By the end of March, 23,600 Chromebooks should be in the province, with another 7,000 by the end of the school year. He also said the district is buying additional devices from other vendors to bridge gaps before then.

The French school district is not affected to the same extent by the technology shortage, Osborne said.

Education Minister Tom Osborne says more Chromebooks will be delivered by the end of next month. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Teacher prep and the school day

Teachers have had a lot of preparation for this scenario in past months, he added, and both students and teachers have become familiar with learning tools such as Google Classroom.

"We're a long ways ahead of where we were last spring. Leaps and bounds," Stack said. All teachers in the province were given a laptop at the beginning of the school year in case this happened, he said.

Instruction time for Grades 6 and lower will range between 60 to 90 minutes, while Grades 7 and up will adhere to a normal schedule.

Teachers are being asked to work from home where possible, as long as they have the Internet connectivity and ability to do so. It teachers can't meet the requirements —such as a private place to be able to conduct classes — they must report into work.

If working from a school isn't an option, the teacher will have to apply for unpaid leave, according to an email sent to all district education staff on Sunday.

Preparations will get underway this week to address how students with complex needs will learn, the district said.

"For now, at least this week, and perhaps for the entire two-week 'circuit breaker' period, these students will have no in- school learning opportunities, but schools will be in contact with families later this week to discuss virtual programing and services," Stack said.

Original plans had those children staying with in-school instruction, but public health has since advised to put that on hold for a few days while health and safety plans are re-evaluated.

"That's the new variable that's been introduced, is the variant," Stack said. 

Daycares open, for some

Regulated child-care services, like centres and home-based daycares, can remain open during Alert Level 5, the Department of Education announced in a news release, although who can avail of those services is limited.

The department said it "recommends" that services be limited to children already enrolled, and only then if their parents or guardians have to work outside the home under Alert Level 5. 

"We need those essential workers at their workplaces, and if they need child care that should not be an impediment," said Osborne.

Osborne said he expects attendance will be much lower than normal under current restrictions. If children don't attend, parents won't have to pay and won't lose their space, the Department of Education said, while regular fees will apply for those still going to daycare.

All regulated child care operators that stay open can still avail of their subsidies through the government's operating grant program, regardless of how many children end up attending.

No child or staffer can go to daycare if they have any COVID-19-like symptoms, are a household contact of a confirmed case or have been told to self-isolate.

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