School board sees big shift to remote learning after winter break
School board superintendent says increase is likely due to concerns over Omicron
The number of students learning remotely has more than tripled since the winter break at the Upper Canada District School Board in eastern Ontario and officials say the increase is likely linked to concerns around the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The board says 675 students chose remote learning before Christmas, and that number ballooned to 2,269 after the holidays.
"There's a certain amount of trepidation with some folks and parents and families need to make decisions based on their individual circumstances," said Susan Rutters, the board's superintendent of schools.
Rutters, who is in charge of remote learning at the board, said despite the recent increase the total number represents about 8.5 per cent of the student population across the board, much lower than the 17-20 per cent who chose virtual last school year.
"Parents and students, having had this experience for over a year now, are really recognizing the value of in-person learning," she added.
Courtney Gauthier decided to keep her four-year-old daughter home, but said the decision wasn't an easy one.
Gauthier's two-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, and the family didn't want to take any chances.
"It's a little bit terrifying because it's almost like choosing between one's mental health and one's physical health," Gauthier said.
Her older daughter's school has been accommodating, and despite the challenges of having two at home, she's comforted to know she's not alone.
"I feel like there's no good decision right now. Every decision is horrible and there's so much guilt associated with every decision you make as a parent right now, so I'm glad to know I'm not the only one deciding to keep my child home." she said.
WATCH: Concerned about Omicron, some parents opt to take kids out of school
Increased workload for teachers
The school board is using a hybrid learning model where one educator simultaneously teaches students in class and those logging in from home.
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The board says the recent increase of remote learners is preliminary and will likely change because students can easily transition back to in-person learning, but that still puts more stress on teachers, according to Peter Lindsay, who represents local teachers with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario.
"It's a significant increase in workload ... and during the day their attention [is] divided between the students who are online and the students who are physically there in the classroom," Lindsay said.
"And then it it changes day by day, so you never know what you're walking into in the morning."
Rutters acknowledged the "hero work" teachers across Ontario are doing right now and said her board is offering help through a distance learning support team.
"Depending on the number of models in a particular class, our teachers do face a challenging workflow right now, but we're so grateful for their efforts," Rutters said.
A spokesperson with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board, which doesn't offer a hybrid learning model but runs an entirely separate virtual school, said about 6 per cent of its total student population is learning remotely.
Since Jan. 1 the board received 54 requests from parents for their children to enter virtual learning for the rest of the school year and 39 of those requests were approved.
CBC also asked for data from the Ottawa Catholic School Board, but numbers were not provided prior to publication.