Ottawa

Parents fear surge in COVID-19 cases will cause a stampede to online learning

Eastern Ontario's largest school board says hundreds of its students are now trying to switch to remote learning, but it might be a while before they're able to.

'The writing is on the wall,' parent says

A Toronto kindergarten student on her first day of class in Sept. 2020. Parents in Ontario have been told to screen their kids for specific COVID-19 symptoms every morning. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Eastern Ontario's largest school board says hundreds of its students are now trying to switch to remote learning, but it might be a while before they're able to.

With COVID-19 cases surging, many parents have asked to pull their kids out of classrooms and put them back in front of the family laptop, according to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB).

But with budgets already set and no capacity to hire more teachers for virtual learning, the OCDSB has told families they may end up sitting on a wait list for a long time.

'Horrible' winter ahead

Emma Spreekmeester said she made up her mind on the first day of school to pull her 16-year-old son out of John McCrae Secondary School and have him learn remotely.

The Grade 11 student woke up with a sore stomach, and although his mother was confident he'd just eaten something that disagreed with him, she kept him home.

School rules meant he had to be tested for COVID-19 before returning to class. That took hours, she said, and it then took days to get the negative test result.

"We just thought, 'The writing is on the wall — this winter is going to be horrible,'" said Spreekmeester.

Emma Spreekmeester says that after her son missed several days of in-person classes while waiting for COVID-19 test results, she realized online learning might be a better option. 1:41

Compressed school year

Spreekmeester said she's worried that with the fall cold season, her son will inevitably develop sniffles from time to time — again requiring him to stay home.

With a highly compressed "quadmester" school schedule, a few days out of school could mean missing the equivalent to two weeks of classes.

Spreekmeester said she asked to switch her son to virtual learning, and that was when she learned there were already some 1,600 students with the same idea.

She said she expects the school board will soon hear from a wave of parents in a situation like hers.

"I hope they're thinking of that now," she said. "They should be."

Demand greater than supply

Demand for virtual learning is currently "greater than the available space," said Camille Williams-Taylor, director of education for the OCDSB.

While there are no concerns about physical distancing, the size of virtual classrooms must still be capped to keep the remote cohorts manageable for teachers.

"We're working through the process as quickly as possible," Williams-Taylor said.

In an email to families Friday, Williams-Taylor said staff shortages this year is "greater than usual," and could be a factor in the decision to close schools.

"Parents should be prepared for the possibility of school closures if we do not have enough staff available to safely supervise students," she wrote.

'Everybody is over a barrel,' says dad

When Thomas Williams saw COVID cases rising again, he began to have second thoughts about enrolling his children, who are in grades 1 and 3, for in-person learning.

But when he was laid off from work and found himself at home with an open schedule, he decided it would be best to keep his children home, too.

Thomas Williams, who has children in Grade 1 and Grade 3, says his family originally chose in-person learning but is hoping to switch to online, disappointed with class sizes and mask guidance. 0:40

He too was told there is no virtual section that can take his kids, leaving the father to provide instruction on his own.

"I feel that everybody is in a bad position, everybody is over a barrel," he said.

For now, Emma Spreekmeester's son will continue to go to school and try not to fall behind.

Like Williams, she doesn't blame teachers or the school.

"I blame the province and the lack of funding for the schools," she said.

About the Author

Stu Mills

CBC Ottawa reporter

You can reach Stu Mills by email at stu.mills@cbc.ca.

With files from Sandra Abma

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