What it's like to be in charge of 13,000 Ottawa students learning from home

Take a trip to the virtual principal’s office. Mark Schenk is in charge of overseeing thousands of students from more than 100 schools across the city. Here's what that's like.

Principal Mark Schenk is overseeing OCDSB’s remote learning this year

Principal of OCDSB's virtual school Mark Schenk says 'it's been a massive task' organizing remote learning this year. (Submitted by Mark Schenk)

Last year, Mark Schenk was the principal of about 200 kids at Ottawa's First Avenue Public School. Today, he's overseeing 13,000 elementary students and 500 teachers at six virtual campuses across the city.

"It's certainly been exciting," Schenk told CBC's All in a Day host Alan Neal on Wednesday. "I get a lot less exercise."

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-21 school year became unlike any other with 17,000 of Ottawa-Carleton District School Board's (OCSDB) estimated 75,000 students opting to learn online.

"Getting this whole virtual school off the ground has been monumental and unprecedented," Schenk said, who is both head of the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual School and the principal of the downtown virtual campus. "I really couldn't imagine what it was going to be like." 

Find out what it's like to be in charge of 13,000 students learning from home 10:41

He's been asked many times why he wanted to lead the remote school.

"Most people seem to think that I wanted the job because I'm a techie," he said. "It's the opposite, in fact." 

Schenk said he sometimes struggles with technology and thought he could relate to how some students and parents might feel when confronting remote learning.

'Happily surprised,' says kindergarten teacher

A month into the gig, Schenk said students and teachers are "really happy and settled." Teachers had to focus on activities that were less academic and more community building, to help students feel safe in the new environment, he said.

Teacher Jessica Ramien said at first, teaching young kids online seemed like a difficult task — but it's actually worked out.

"I've just been really happily surprised at how kindergarten is going online," said Ramien, who teaches in the virtual downtown campus. "It's actually not that much different than running a kindergarten class in person." 

This is kindergarten teacher Jessica Ramien's setup for teaching her students at the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual School. (Submitted by Jessica Ramien)

Ramien explained how her students connected and participated like in a regular classroom. For example, they have a few minutes before class starts to have an "open talk" on the virtual platform.

"They all greet each other by name, they're asking how they're doing, and talking about what they're doing at home," she said.

And another bonus — they can sing, unlike at in-person schools. 

"They love singing for the class and having that attention," she said. "It's kind of nice. That culture is happening even though it's a virtual classroom."

No 'principal's office' to send kids to

But what happens if students misbehave in virtual school?

"There certainly isn't an office to physically send students, so no, nobody's being sent to the office," Schenk said.

Instead, Schenk said the team tries to speak with parents about the concerns, taking "a progressive discipline approach."

Thousands of students are still on wait-lists to get into remote school in Ottawa. Some are still waiting to have their first day. 

"It's really taken up a lot of effort to get all 13,000 students set up," he said, acknowledging there are many others wanting to get in.

Schenk said due to constraints, the school won't be able to get all the students in, but it will prioritize students and families with medical conditions, and those who applied earlier.

With files from CBC's Alan Neal

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