Nfld. & Labrador

School board eyeing blended learning in September to counter drawbacks of online classes

Kids and parents are eager for a return to normalcy as an odd school year sputtered to an end last week.

Spotty internet, disorganized material among concerns of distance learning model

Students could see a mix of online and in-person learning in the fall, but the school board hasn't hammered out a plan just yet. (Shutterstock)

After an unusual and often frustrating school year drew to an end last week, the province's largest school board says it's looking at a mix of online and in-person learning in September if public health measures allow it.

Students and parents told CBC News they've struggled to adjust to full-time distance learning, with some parents finding their own workloads have doubled since the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District moved its classes online in mid-March.

Vicki Hancock of Red Bay, exhausted by juggling a full-time job and keeping her 11-year-old son organized and motivated, also harbours concerns over the amount of screentime trapping her child inside.

"I really don't want him sitting down in front of the computer all day," she said.

Hancock says her son hasn't absorbed the online material, and rather than force him to complete the work, she's sent him outside to tackle hands-on skills like hunting and boating.

Other parents who spoke to CBC worried about a lack of structure and schedules, spotty internet connections and the effectiveness of asking young kids to rely entirely on screens rather than on books and paper.

For those reasons, Desiree Wolfrey, a mother of three in Rigolet, hopes the school board opens classrooms in the fall.

"If they're going to be working from home there needs to be a lot more support," said Wolfrey. "My concern is they won't want to sit down and actually learn.… They did not enjoy being in front of the screen."

Desiree Wolfrey says it wasn't worth the struggle to get her kids to learn from a screen all day, and sent them out hunting instead. (Submitted by Desiree Wolfrey)

Like Hancock, Wolfrey also sent her family outdoors to focus on traditional skills, rather than continue to fight a losing battle.

Two of her daughters killed their first seal on sea ice this spring.

Effectiveness contingent on teachers

Parents and students alike told CBC that a good distance lesson often depended on the creativity and dedication of individual teachers. The board has been using group video calls and Google Classroom to deliver materials.

One parent said her daughter's teacher would offer one-on-one phone calls and even dropped off a prize to the family's mailbox as a motivator to keep up with math work.

Board president Tony Stack praised those innovations as a way to keep students, especially younger ones, tuned into the curriculum while adjusting to the closures.

"You don't just flick a switch and go over to online learning," Stack said.

Tatum Feere, left, says her parents had to help her organize her workload, noting it was stressful, but ultimately rewarding, to figure out distance learning. (Submitted by Aaron Feere)

The board is considering logistical options for delivering classes next year, he said, but can't yet paint a picture of what the classroom — virtual or otherwise — will look like after the summer holiday.

"Our crystal ball isn't very clear right now," Stack said.

He says a blended model of online and in-person learning might be in the cards, but because the province requires physical distancing until a coronavirus vaccine or treatment is found, the board must consider the implications of class sizes, transportation, meals and shared equipment before opening school doors.

"It'll look different," he said. "We absolutely want everyone back in September, 100 per cent. But that might not be possible."

Students echo concerns

The swift cancellation of classes in March left older students stressed about how to organize workloads and prepare for the transition to higher education.

Tatum Feere, a Grade 7 student at Queen of Peace Middle School in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, said her school uploaded all her coursework at once, leaving Feere and her mom trying to figure out a study schedule by themselves.

But the flexibility of learning from home — and quiet time away from what Feere said was a disruptive classroom — eventually led her to feel more prepared for high school in the fall.

"I feel like I'm learning more from home because I can learn at my own pace," Feere said. 

Megan Mugford, a Grade 12 student at Mealy Mountain Collegiate in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, found the board's attempt at ad hoc distance learning missed the mark. "It was a little disorganized and frustrating," she said.

Studying alone also presented a challenge. At school, she said, "if you weren't doing the work then you were standing out against everyone. But at home it's different."

Stack acknowledged adverse health effects of spending all day glued to a screen, and said the board has been preparing for other teaching methods to avoid that outcome next year.

"Some students excel in this environment, but others struggle," he said. "You will never replace the human quality of face-to-face." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Labrador Morning


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