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What you need to know about Ontario's at-home learning program, which launches today

Schools in Ontario remain closed but classes are technically back in session today as the province’s at-home distance learning program begins. It's led by teachers, but students will need to learn independently and receive direction and support from parents.

Distance learning begins after schools closed on March 14 due to COVID-19

Karla Ghartey’s children Kofi, left, and Estelle work on activities their home in Sudbury, Ont. The materials were provided by their teachers. (Submitted by Karla Ghartey)

Schools in Ontario remain closed, but classes are technically back in session today as the province's at-home distance learning program begins.

The program is led by teachers, but students will need to learn independently and receive direction and support from parents, according to Minister of Education Stephen Lecce.

Lecce said the plan includes online learning, but telephone calls and mail-out packages are also an option.

He said while the program isn't perfect, it gives students the opportunity to engage in learning, be on track to graduate and reconnect with teachers.

"We have to be focused on ensuring learning always happens irrespective of the circumstances thrown at us," Lecce said in an interview with CBC News Sunday. 

Lecce also said students will be able to access mental health resources, including psychologists, psychotherapists and social workers. 

Watch | How online learning is rolling out across Canada:

Ontario announced that schools will remain closed until May while schools in other provinces are closed indefinitely, changing the way kids are learning during the pandemic.  2:02

The program: flexible, differing requirements, year-end report cards

The education ministry has set out different requirements when it comes to the amount of hours of work and what subjects are being focused on. 

  • Kindergarten to Grade 3 — Students will complete five hours of work each week, focusing on literacy and math.
  • Grades 4 to 6 — Five hours of work each week, focusing on literacy, math, science and social studies.
  • Grades 7 to 8 — 10 hours of work each week, focusing on math, literacy, science and social studies.
  • Grades 9 to 12 — Three hours of work per course each week for semestered students, or 1.5 hours per course each week for non-semestered students.

Lecce told CBC News unconventional teaching and learning methods will be used and it'll be up to teachers to decide what assignments look like and how students will be engaged. 

He said work is underway to get students electronics if they don't have what's needed at home, and that households without internet access won't be left behind.

Schools in Ontario have been closed since March 14 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We will not create any barrier to learning," he said. "If it means we have to literally send a bus driver to courier printed materials to your home …  we will do that. We are doing that."

All students will receive an end-of-the-year report card.

Lecce said the program is in place to ensure the pandemic does not compromise graduation for high school seniors.

As it stands now, schools will remain closed until May 4, but that could get extended based on advice from the province's health officials. Lecce said at this point there's no need to cancel or extend the remainder of the school year, but that could change.

Students on Prince Edward Island also started a similar learning program today.

'I am nervous,' one parent says

Karla Ghartey, a mother of two in Sudbury, Ont., said she's worried about juggling working from home and helping with her elementary school childrens' education.

"I'm very, very worried that my kids are not going to have the access they need to the electronic devices in order to get all the material," she told CBC's Fresh Air from her home.

The family has one working computer in the home that she uses for work.

"If anything is really scheduled, I'm not really sure how I'm going to be able to manage that," she said. 

Ghartey said the program is more "realistic" than she expected. She was afraid students would have to login online and be present for a regular school day.

Saba Al Mathno’s children Hamza, left, and Farouk, who are in Grades 4 and 5, work on school assignments in their Toronto home. (Supplied by Saba Al Mathno)

Toronto mother Saba Al Mathno called the province's plan a good start, but doesn't think five hours a week is enough for children in Grades 4 to 6.

"I am nervous," she told Fresh Air. "My own two kids, each one of them learns differently." 

Both Ghartey and Al Mathno said their childrens' teachers have been proactive about communicating and sending out activities and lessons.

Lecce said the program is based on flexibility and communication between teachers, parents and students.

"It's enabling an educator to build a program that best works for students," he said. "The educators have already reached out to build timelines that work for the parents."

Teachers ensuring a sense of classroom community

Since schools closed in mid-March, teachers have been connecting with parents and students and preparing for distance learning. Dixon Grove Junior Middle School teacher Kimberly Liang has been checking in on her Grade 8 students and speaking with parents about the distance learning program. 

"It was nice to have parents give us a little input on how their children will learn best," the Etobicoke teacher said.

Toronto public schools are using e-learning sites like D2L, which was already used in some classrooms before schools were closed. They're also using Google Classroom to share information, handout assignments and communicate with students.

Liang said many teachers will also be checking in with students and parents through email and phone calls.

She and her teaching partner have been creating instructional videos for students by writing on virtual whiteboards. 

Grade 8 teacher Kimberly Liang has been creating instructional videos for her students as a way of teaching lessons from a distance. (Supplied by Kimberly Liang)

Liang has assigned her students a project to make encouraging signs during the pandemic to display in their windows, if they choose. The signs are shared to a slideshow for all the students to see, which she said is a way for them to contribute to a new sense of classroom community. 

"It's nice to see that they're not all alone" she said. "It's not something that we would count toward any sort of mark, but I think those kinds of things help keep their spirits high and help keep them motivated."

Liang also plans to hold live "office hours" when students can contribute to the same document at once, ask questions and simply communicate as a group. 

Liang said the six students in her class who have special needs will get more one-on-one attention from teachers who don't have their own classes, such as music and gym teachers. They'll be calling students and parents more frequently to offer additional support.

Liang said she feels excited, nervous and hopeful about the program rolling out.

"I'm hoping having things online and having this more one-on-one contact through phone, and with parents involved, might help me reach kids perhaps I hadn't reached before," she said.

About the Author

Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto where she covers a wide range of stories. She has a particular interest in crime, legal and justice issues and human interest stories. She previously reported on national and international news. Angelina got her start in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at angelina.king@cbc.ca or @angelinaaking

With files from CBC Radio's Fresh Air and The Canadian Press

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