Toronto

Virtual school is almost out for summer. So how well did distance learning work in the GTA?

CBC News checked in with parents, school boards and experts in the GTA about how online learning worked during the first few months of the pandemic and what steps should be taken to improve it, if it’s extended into September.

A third of GTA school boards have rough numbers on how many students they’ve reached at home

CBC News reached out to the GTA's dozen school boards to find out how many students each is reaching at home. Eight of the boards haven't collected numbers from their schools to find out how many students they're reaching with online learning. (Juliya Shangarey/Shutterstock)

With the official start of summer vacation around the corner, one Toronto dad says the biggest struggle with his 10-year-old son learning from home has been keeping him engaged with his school work. 

"Neither the carrot nor the stick seems to work, and I've had other parents complain of exactly the same problem," said Russell Smith. 

"We get as much support as the poor overworked teacher can give … but she doesn't have time, resources, or really the technological ability to have individual meetings with all of them."

It's now been three months since COVID-19 upended the elementary and secondary school year across Ontario. With just two weeks to go, CBC News checked in with parents, school boards and experts in the GTA about how online learning worked during the first few months of the pandemic, and what steps should be taken to improve it, if it's extended into September.

Engagement with teachers is key, parents say

Smith thinks teachers are making the best of this unprecedented situation, but he believes school boards need to do more to support them. 

Russell Smith says the biggest struggle with his 10-year-old son learning from home has been keeping him engaged with his school work. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

The findings from a recent Toronto District School Board (TDSB) parent survey show Smith's priorities are echoed by other Toronto parents. Nearly half of respondents considered more direct instruction, or more direct contact from the teacher the thing that would help support their child the most with remote learning. 

Althea Frank Esho's daughter is in junior kindergarten so the Toronto mom is less concerned about direct contact with the teacher. She says what she values more are the comments and feedback the teacher provides to her daughter on assignments.

"She gets excited when she knows she has a message from one of her teachers," said Frank Esho. "That's been really nice." 

What Frank Esho finds challenging is making the time to sit down with her daughter and get assignments done while she and her husband are working full time. 

"I'm Black, my children are Black. I feel that additional pressure to make sure she gets the work done and hands it in on time," said Frank Esho. 

"I know there are already so many stereotypes and biases out there against kids of colour, even as early as kindergarten. We really want to do all we can to set her up for success — that's more pressure." 

Althea Frank Esho and her husband plan to keep working on junior kindergarten assignments with their four-year-old daughter during the summer so she's ready for the fall. (Brenton Alexander Photo)

She and her husband have made a pact to continue doing the assignments they didn't have time to complete with their daughter throughout the summer so she stays engaged and wants to go back to school. 

"She loves being home," said Frank Esho. "Her family is here, she gets to play with her sister. So even that is another concern: going back to school. Is she going to want to go back?"

How many students are school boards reaching at home?

CBC News reached out to the GTA's dozen school boards to find out how many students each is reaching at home. 

Eight of the boards haven't collected numbers from their schools. The remaining four school boards provide either a percentage of students reached or actual numbers. 

  • York Region District School Board said it reached 99.4 per cent of its 129,090 students.
  • Conseil scolaire Viamonde said it reached roughly 95 per cent of its 13,000 students.
  • Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board said the average proportion of its students reached per teacher is roughly 70 per cent. 

The York Catholic District School Board was the only GTA board that provided CBC News with specific numbers of both elementary and secondary students reached through its online learning platforms. 

Overall, the board's numbers show 98 per cent of its 52,680 students have engaged with distance learning through Google Classroom and D2L Brightspace. And 81 per cent of students have participated in synchronous learning through Google Meet.

A former deputy education minister and current professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, says it's critical boards have that information.

"Every single board in Ontario should know who they're reaching, who they're not reaching, and what they're going to do about it," Charles Pascal told CBC News. 

Every single board in Ontario should know who they're reaching.- Charles Pascal, professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

Some of the boards that didn't have numbers said they would be gathering data through teacher surveys this month. All of the boards told CBC News that both teachers and principals were making every effort to connect with any parents and students they haven't had contact with yet.

"Some of these issues were a part of the scene before the pandemic to ensure that Ontario's education system is accessible to everybody," said Pascal. 

"Accessible in a whole bunch of ways, including participating in the school experience, and ensuring that school experience is effective for all students."

Equity is more than providing internet access

Both Pascal and Annie Kidder, the executive director of People for Education, told CBC News that closing the gap in terms of accessibility and equity in distance education should be a priority.

"It's not just about who has a computer and who doesn't," said Kidder. "It really comes down to all of the differences between families, and their situations, and their capacity to support kids at home."

Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, is pushing the province to create a central table, or task force, to plan for September.  (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

School boards across the GTA say they have shipped tens of thousands of internet-enabled laptops and tablets to students who didn't have access to the technology at home. 

But Kidder says more needs to be done to make sure both teachers and students can navigate the complexities of using technology for distance learning. 

"It's also making sure that we're not just dumping this on everybody," she said.

"That we're thinking about everyone, including teachers' preparedness to be able to think about teaching in a different way."

For Kidder, part of figuring out where gaps in equity exist is asking both students and teachers what's worked so far, and what hasn't.

"We really need to understand from students what made a difference," she said.

"We need to know for teachers, what else do they need to support them? Is there curriculum that didn't really work?"

The road to September 

Last month, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said a full plan for reopening Ontario's schools in September would be released by the end of June. He indicated the plan will include measures to ensure physical distancing and to restrict the movement of students at school.

"It is obvious that schools will not look the same, that we will have to re-imagine education in some respects in September, given that there will have to be some protocol changes," Lecce said.

Last month, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said a full plan for reopening Ontario's schools in September would be released by the end of June. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

It's unclear whether distance learning will continue into the new school year, and if it does, in what capacity. 

But either way, education experts told CBC News it's important to reflect back on what worked, and what didn't, in the last three months. 

"We have to follow the lead of those who have done things well," said Pascal. "What school board, what school, what principal really knocked it out of the park in terms of reaching all students?"

To figure things like that out, Kidder's organization is pushing the province to create a central table, or task force, that includes perspectives from all sides of education. 

"The worry right now is we're going to have sort of one-off solutions to single problems," said Kidder.

"We won't be learning from what we're doing right now, and we won't have a good overall plan for the whole province."

About the Author

Nicole Brockbank

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Nicole Brockbank is a reporter for CBC Toronto's Enterprise Unit. Fuelled by coffee, she digs up, researches and writes original investigative and feature stories. nicole.brockbank@cbc.ca

With files from Farrah Merali

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