Toronto

TDSB wants to centralize remote learning in a 'virtual school' as part of COVID-19 plan

The Toronto District School Board, Canada's largest, says it intends to provide remote learning this fall through a centralized "virtual school" rather than from students' individual neighbourhood schools, prompting concerns that children out of class since March will be further isolated.

Simply not enough resources to provide remote learning from individual schools, TDSB chair says

About 29 per cent of families with elementary students in the Toronto District School Board said they would opt for remote learning come September, according to the board's own survey results. (Juliya Shangarey/Shutterstock)

Canada's largest school board says it intends to provide remote learning this fall through a centralized "virtual school" rather than from students' individual neighbourhood schools, prompting concerns that children out of class since March will be further isolated.

The proposal was presented and discussed at a general meeting of the Toronto District School Board on Tuesday. The board is scheduled to meet again tomorrow to finalize its plan, and it will have to be approved by the Ministry of Education.

Alexander Brown, TDSB chair and trustee for Willowdale, said the decision was based on an assessment of the board's available resources as it looks to reduce elementary school class sizes amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a return to school in September.

Arranging for remote learning classes carried out by the board's nearly 600 elementary and high schools became untenable, Brown told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

It's a disconnect from her friends and from her community that have already been taken away since March.- Anna Penner, parent

"We just do not have enough resources to provide that on an individual school basis. So really it comes down to, 'What are the resources we have and how far do they go?' They don't really go far enough," he said.

A survey sent to families by the board earlier this month found that 29 per cent of elementary students, or 35,389 children, would opt for remote learning instead of returning to school for in-person classes.

That figure dropped to 23 per cent if the board could ensure smaller class sizes of 15 to 20  — something it has said is a priority as it prepares for the scheduled first day of the academic year on Sept. 8.

Across Grades 9 to 12, the survey showed 17 per cent, or 7,622 students would choose remote learning under an adapted model with smaller class size cohorts and students attending in-person classes every other day.

Plan could isolate students from school community: parent

According to the plan, the "virtual school" will be staffed by the TDSB's superintendent as well as principals, vice-principals, teachers and guidance counsellors.

Teachers who chose not to return to in-person classes for medical reasons will also be asked to be redeployed to the virtual school. 

With elementary teachers in class full time under the provincial government's back-to-school guidelines, it is impossible for them to then provide multiple hours of online instruction to students who have chosen remote learning, the board said.

Anna Penner, a parent of three young children who lives in the Woodbine-Danforth neighbourhood of Toronto, said a centralized school only serves to make the option of remote learning even less appealing for her family.

Penner said her eldest child, who is six-and-a-half years old, already struggled with online classes when Ontario shut public schools in mid-March as the COVID-19 outbreak in the province ramped up. 

"She can't type, she can't sit at a computer, she can't sit at a computer for hours each day interacting with people virtually. She's terrible at Zoom calls, and I say that with all of the love," Penner said in a separate Metro Morning interview, adding that the virtual school would just add another layer of difficulty to an already trying learning arrangement.

"It's a disconnect from her friends and from her community that have already been taken away since March. So to say now you're going back to school and now your school is on a computer and now there aren't going to be any of the kids or teachers or administrators that you know and love — that's not a plan."

Avery Swartz, a technology consultant, author and mother of a Grade 4 student in the TDSB, echoed those concerns.

"It's a deeply unappealing choice," she told Metro Morning guest host Jill Dempsey, adding she hasn't made a final decision about the school year yet.

"Especially because we went through the exercise of trying to do the online learning back in the spring. Let me just say, it did not go well."

Board to resurvey parents after plan finalized

Swartz added that while she appreciates the board is in an unprecedented position, she's found its communication with families throughout the last several weeks to be an "absolute mess."

"We need more information. Clear, concise, consistent messaging," she continued.

To make a choice between in-person or remote learning, given the information that is publicly availably right now, is next to impossible, she said.

"We need to know exactly what's going to happen — not hypotheticals about what could happen, but what is going to happen — in our individual schools."

The board has indicated it intends to resurvey parents about the decision in the coming days, after one of three potential back-to-school plans presented at Tuesday's meeting has been finalized and approved by the Ministry of Education. 

In a memo to school boards this week, the ministry approved the option for a staggered return to class for students over a maximum two-week period.

With files from Lucas Powers and Metro Morning

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