Nfld. & Labrador

If online classrooms return, school district wants more structure, and more tech

Virtual learning would be a "different animal" if it becomes necessary this fall, and could carry a big cost for new technology.

NLESD asking province to fund technology for students, teachers

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District has made a request to the province to fund Chromebooks and other technology for teachers and students. (CBC)

School officials say they have learned from the impromptu, COVID-19-caused closure of brick-and-mortar institutions and shift to virtual learning over the past three months.

Now, they are looking to apply those lessons to possible scenarios for the next school year, and are asking for more financial resources in order to be ready.

For the last few months, education efforts focused on ensuring students could get online and meet with teachers, but any future instruction will require virtual classrooms to have more structure. 

"What comes September is a different animal. It'll have more of a prescriptive fashion to it," Newfoundland and Labrador English School District CEO Tony Stack said.

"It'll still rely on teacher autonomy and creativity, but you can expect a more planned delivery of instruction. It will be teaching and learning online as opposed to just learning at home."

Stack made those comments to CBC News before Education Minister Brian Warr said Monday the province hopes to have students back in the classroom this fall.

Warr has left the door open for virtual learning, if necessary, and that could come with a big ask, and a big price tag, from the NLESD.

"In an ideal setting, in order to operate fully, our desire would be all students — let's say Grade 7 and up — would benefit from a Chromebook device, a universal device that we can have quality control over, be able to download to, have a common system," Stack said.

"That would be the ideal. We're not sure completely what's in the art of the possible."

Tony Stack, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, says the next school year will be a 'different animal' from the one just concluded. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The NLESD also has a proposal to the government to fund devices for every teacher in the province.

The cost would be roughly $5 million per grade level for students, and possibly more $5 million to outfit all teachers, who would require higher-end standardized equipment.

'It's something that we're looking at'

Asked by CBC News on Monday if the province has to find a way to get Chromebooks or laptops for every student and teacher in the province, Warr said the government is eyeing it.

"That's part of the plan. We certainly understand that if we have to start learning virtually, we want to make sure that the resources are put in place for students and certainly teachers," the minister said.

"This is new to our students, this is new to our teachers, to be able to deliver the curriculum virtually. It's something that we're looking at."

Education Minister Brian Warr listens to a question from the media at the House of Assembly on Monday. (CBC)

So does the province want to have everyone equipped and connected with a laptop, in case there's a second wave of the virus?

"We've been given a little bit more time to plan, and our plan certainly is to make sure the resources are put in place for September," Warr said.

4,000 'critical needs' 

After the pandemic shuttered schools, the NLESD did a survey that showed most of its 63,000-plus students had access to technology at home.

According to Stack, there were 4,000 "really critical needs that were identified."

The district provided more than 3,000 devices, a combination of laptops and Chromebooks. 

There were also internet bandwidth issues to deal with, and 300 cases where households had no ability to hook up to the internet at all. 

The district ordered and made MiFi devices, which connect to the internet via cellphone networks, available to help with online access in these situations.

While the NLESD doesn't have statistics to measure exactly how many students availed of online learning from March until the end of the school year, there are some numbers that show increased traffic to digital learning options.

An online learning resource page, aimed mainly at kindergarten to Grade 9 students, recorded 30,000 unique users and 130,000 page views in less than two months after its launch, and teacher posts to Google Classrooms jumped fivefold to sixfold in the weeks after schools were shuttered.

'Now those waters have been charted'

The NLESD has invited school council chairs and parent representatives to a virtual meeting later in the week to discuss what's been learned and what can be improved.

Don Coombs, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, said there was mostly positive feedback about the past few months of virtual learning.

"From what we're hearing from parents and students, it was good results towards the end," Coombs said.

"Realizing that we went into uncharted waters, not knowing what we were doing. Now those waters have been charted."

Don Coombs, pictured in a 2018 file photo, is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Stack also commended teachers across the province for stepping up to finish off the semester as best they could.

"We didn't measure the hours, nor were we prescriptive. We relied on the autonomy and professionalism of our teachers, and in large measure they delivered," said Stack.

Coombs said there has to be clarity on what happens next, sooner rather than later. Hopefully, that means Plan A, with children back in schools.

"We also have to be prepared, that if this doesn't happen, the virtual learning that we've just had three months to do, or 10 or 12 weeks to do, that's in place," Coombs said.

"And the parents, along with the students, have to know what it is."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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