10,000 students in northeastern Ontario going to school online, but it's a moving target

A month into this unprecedented school year and about 10,000 students in northeastern Ontario are taking classes online. But that number is shifting every day and boosting the stress for those trying to run an education system in a pandemic.

Thousands of students have also been home this fall awaiting COVID-19 test results

These students at MacLeod School in Sudbury are among the 85 per cent in the northeast who are attending class in person this fall, but that number is shifting every day. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC )

A month into this unprecedented school year and about 10,000 or 15 per cent of the students in northeastern Ontario are taking classes online.

But that number is shifting every day and boosting the stress for those trying to run an education system in a pandemic. 

"You don't know how many kids are going to be there. You don't know how many kids are going to be added to your roster that day. You don't know how many kids are going to taken off your roster that day," says Liana Holm, union president for English public elementary teachers in the Sudbury area.

"I have a number of phone calls from members on a daily basis who express to me their extreme exhaustion."

Online learning in northeastern Ontario by school board

  • Algoma District School Board: 1,442 students or 15 per cent 
  • Conseil Scolaire de District Catholique Franco Nord: did not provide any information
  • Conseil Scolaire Publique du Nord Est  de L'Ontario:  188 students or 9 per cent 
  • Conseil Scolaire Catholique des Grandes Rivieres: 240 students or 4 per cent 
  • Conseil Scolaire Catholique du Nouvel-Ontario:  577 students or 10 per cent 
  • Conseil Scolaire du Grand Nord: 324 students or 12 per cent 
  • District School Board Ontario North East: 1,403 students or 21 per cent 
  • Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board: 605 students or 13 per cent 
  • Near North District School Board: 1,319 students or 14 per cent 
  • Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic District School Board: did not provide any information
  • Northeastern Catholic District School Board: 305 students or 13 per cent 
  • Rainbow District School Board: did not provide exact figures, but say roughly 20 per cent of 13,000 stduents (or 2,600) learning online
  • Sudbury Catholic District School Board: 1,336 students or 21 per cent 

Holm says her Rainbow District School Board is allowing students to switch between online and in-person on a daily basis, while other boards have set periods in the school year when they can transfer between the two systems.

For the District School Board Ontario North East— which runs English public schools in Timmins, Temiskaming, Kirkland Lake, Kapuskasing and surrounding areas— there are 350 students who have requested to make a switch after Thanksgiving.

Director of education Lesleigh Dye says 80 per cent of them want to move to in-person classes after attending virtual classes for the past month.

She says with students shifting around, board officials are constantly adjusting the number of kids in each class to ensure social distancing and amending how many teachers they need online and in each school.

"It's a significant challenge and we're managing it," Dye says with a laugh.

With dozens of students shifting between in person learning and online classes, school boards in northeastern Ontario have been constantly had to adjust which students are in which class and how many teachers they need to hire. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

At the Algoma District School Board, the current of students is moving away from the physical classroom and toward online learning.

Superintendent of school effectiveness and student achievement Marcy Bell says they have requests from 80 students who want to attend classes from home starting next month. 

She believes it's related to the rising COVID-19 numbers in the province, even though the spread remains slow in the north.

"I believe that that is impacting families and their decisions, so I think we are going to see that there are more opting for virtual and remote," says Bell. 

Sudbury English Catholic schools have also seen a move in that direction, with 106 students switching to online education since the beginning of September.

On top of the thousands of students in the northeast learning online during the pandemic, thousands of others have been sent home with COVID-19 symptoms.

Many school boards are reporting that about 20 per cent of students were absent in recent weeks awaiting a COVID test. 

The province changed the rules last week, dropping runny nose, pink eye and other less serious symptoms from the screening list.

But the old list still applies to teachers and other school staff.

Dye says about 25 per cent of school employees in her board have been forced to stay home. 

"It's taking a lot of work for them to coordinate if a teacher's away, a secretary's away, an educational assistant's away. And they're doing it. It's just an additional amount of work," she says. 

About 10,000 students in the northeast are going to school virtually this fall. In some boards, there are dozens looking to transfer to in-person classes and other boards are seeing more students wanting to move online. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Dye says some schools in her board have been half empty some days this fall, with students and staff in quarantine due to COVID-19 symptoms. 

Rick Belisle is the union president for English Catholic high school teachers in the Nipissing-Parry Sound board and the father of two secondary students. His daughter started the year online, but is now joining her brother at school.

He says with the province telling people to tighten up social circles and restrictions on how many shoppers can be in a hardware store, it seems strange to have 900 students in a high school, sometimes 30 of them in one classroom.

"It doesn't seem that logical a step with what's happening outside the school system," says Belisle.

A French Catholic elementary school in Timmins has become the first in the northeast with a reported COVID case and officials in other boards say it's only a matter of time until it hits their schools.

Holm says that's when all these pandemic plans will really be put to the test. 

"The plan is only as good as if we don't have any cases," she says.

"As soon as you have a case in the school, it's going to really start shutting things down and we might learn that this plan is not really a feasible one."


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to