Virtual schools have faced a steep learning curve, but parents still want in as COVID-19 cases rise

Amid a rise in COVID-19 cases, a growing number of families are looking to switch from in-class to virtual learning where it's offered. But with school boards still working out the kinks with online schools, a fresh wave of remote students is expected to spark yet another major reorganization of classes this fall. 'There's no right way to do this right now,' says parent on wait list for virtual school

With growing wait lists for online learning, boards expect to reorganize classes

A growing number of parents are looking to switch their children from in-class to virtual learning where it's offered as the coronavirus pandemic worsens. But a fresh wave of remote students is expected to spark another reorganization of classes at school boards this fall. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Like many parents, Damian Kearns and Nicole Belcourt monitored the number of COVID-19 cases in Ontario as they grappled with the decision to either send their children physically back to class or attend school remotely. 

They ultimately chose the in-class option, but with the caveat that if the province hit 500 new cases a day, they'd pull Julian and Imogen out and enrol them virtually. The Toronto parents have applied to switch and will now keep their kids at home while they await their school board's next virtual start date after Thanksgiving.

"Having had pneumonia a number of times, having been on a respirator as a kid, I know what the end game is there, and it's really awful," Kearns said. 

"I also don't want them to be put in a position where maybe they pick something up at school: They themselves don't get sick, but they make a loved one sick through no fault of their own."

Just weeks into the new school year — and as some provinces see a rise in COVID-19 cases — a growing number of families are looking to make the switch between in-person and virtual learning where it's offered.

But with boards still working out the kinks for online schools — including the assignment of teachers and reorganization of classrooms — a fresh wave of remote students is expected to spark yet another major reorganization of classes later this fall.

Toronto parents Nicole Belcourt and Damian Kearns have decided to pull their kids, Imogen and Julian, out of in-person classes and switch them to remote learning as COVID-19 cases increase. (CBC)

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada's largest with roughly 250,000 students, has already seen more than 70,000 of its students choose virtual school this fall — a vast number that pushed it to delay the start of its online offering twice. Some elementary students and teachers are being matched up just this week.

"It is an absolute mess," Elementary Teachers of Toronto president Jennifer Brown said of the virtual school start so far. 

"We have had half-time teachers being given full-time assignments. We've had students registered for classes without a teacher or, vice-versa, a teacher registered for class with no accompanying student.... We have also had specialty programs that don't have the teachers with the specialty qualifications lined up. It's an administrative nightmare."

Jennifer Brown, president of Elementary Teachers of Toronto, called the start of the TDSB's virtual school 'an administrative nightmare' and predicts further upheaval if many more families opt to switch from in-person to virtual school. (CBC)

Brown said it's reasonable that parents would want to switch to online learning given rising COVID numbers, but she predicts further upheaval if many more families make that choice. There may be the need to hire more teachers and, if educators already in schools are reassigned to virtual learning, further reorganization of in-person classes.

A shuffle of the system is indeed on its way, said Ryan Bird, the TDSB's manager of corporate and social media relations.

On Thursday night, a day after the Toronto board's first transition deadline since school started, Bird said a preliminary count has revealed approximately 7,500 more elementary students want to switch from in-person classes to virtual. About 3,000 will be doing the opposite, moving from online to in-person, with the changes to go into effect Tuesday, October 13.

WATCH | More students expected to switch to virtual school despite concerns:

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"We need the teachers where the students are. If they're in bricks-and-mortar buildings, then the teachers are there. But if they're in virtual school, we also need teachers virtually. So it's an adjustment that's coming up in the upcoming weeks," Bird said in an interview earlier this week, acknowledging that for students and families, as well as educators, this has been a challenging start to the school year.

"We know that for many, it has been frustrating, both on the teacher and student side, and we're just trying to do our best given the situation. We're working through our staffing process as quickly as possible, but in the end, there's only a certain amount of funds available to be able to staff a system of this size."

Availability of teachers an issue before COVID-19

Well before the coronavirus pandemic, the availability of teachers and substitute teachers in regions across the country was already an issue, said Shelley Morse, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation.

"Gaps have existed, and provinces and territories haven't addressed it appropriately. One of the issues is that the pay is significantly less for a substitute than a regular classroom teacher," Morse said from Wolfville, N.S.

"Knowing that we've talked about a second wave ever since March, the work wasn't done to make sure that teachers were in place, that they entice more teachers to come. [Education ministries] could have raised that pay for this pandemic time to allow [more substitute] teachers to come back to school and do that work."

Despite talk of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic since spring, 'the work wasn't done to make sure that teachers were in place, that they entice more teachers to come,' says Shelley Morse, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation. (CBC)

Appropriate staffing for virtual schools has been a concern for many divisions this year, with some boards not offering the option of switching because of it. 

For example, the Calgary Catholic School District asked families to commit to the choice of in-person or online learning for the entire school year "to maintain continuity in education delivery," communications spokesperson Sandra Borowski said in a statement.

"Since staffing is done at the beginning of the year, we are not able to accommodate moving students from one school to another mid-year, beyond unique situations where this is identified as a necessity."

Other districts — including Regina Public Schools and Edmonton Public Schools — have said there would be opportunities to transition between in-person and virtual learning after traditional reporting or assessment periods, but they have not yet indicated the specific deadline dates for families to apply.

"Our second learning quarter begins on Nov. 16," said Anna Batchelor, a spokesperson for Edmonton Public Schools. "A few weeks before that date, all families will be asked to indicate if their children will be learning through in-person or online instruction for the second quarter."

Students at Toronto's Portage Trail Community School return to class on Sept. 15. 'We need the teachers where the students are. If they're in bricks-and-mortar buildings, then the teachers are there. But if they're in virtual school, we also need teachers virtually,' says TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Parents in 'an impossible position'

For Calgary parent Tara Fleming, not having the option to switch is disappointing. Her daughters attend school in the Calgary Board of Education, which at this point has not allowed switching from in-person to its Hub online school following the initial late-August deadline to sign up (although its website notes the decision could be revisited). 

Just four days into the school year, her older daughter, Maddie, learned that someone in her English class had tested positive for COVID-19. The student's family subsequently tested negative for COVID-19, but Maddie was still required to self-isolate for 14 days. 

"I wish that I had [chosen] online just because it's more stable, rather than having to go to school every day with the constant wonder if I'm going to have to be sent home again," the 12th-grader said.

A lot of things were still unclear when families had to make that decision in August, Fleming said, including how high-schoolers sent home to isolate would be supported in courses that were still continuing in-person. 

"That teacher now has to deliver in-person to those students, as well as support the kids that are in quarantine," she said. "Some of them are really great and can absolutely pivot and be creative and keep everyone up to date. Others aren't that strong."

Just four days into the school year, Calgary Grade 12 student Maddie Fleming was sent home to self-isolate after someone in her English class tested positive for COVID-19. (Submitted by Tara Fleming)

The family would now choose virtual school — if they had the option, and even knowing of the issues Hub has had in getting underway — to avoid further potential breaks in learning.

"I think some flexible options for parents and students should be considered as part of the overall solution here.... Having the option to join at some point, even if it was halfway through the year," Fleming said. 

"But to hear 'You made your choice in August with the information we provided you at that time,' you do feel a little bit stuck."

There are also some families who aren't waiting for their school boards to act. 

Alarmed by the rise in new COVID-19 cases in the Ottawa region, Christopher Canning is ready to pull his seven-year-old daughter, who has asthma, out of in-person classes this week and plans to home-school her as he awaits an official date for her switch to virtual. 

"The process for us in the Ottawa Carleton District School Board now is to put her name on the wait list through the school, and from what I've heard, that list is growing.... We're not the only one saying it's time to go," said Canning, who is now working part time.

It's putting parents into "an impossible position," he said.

Many are already aware of the uncertainty around virtual schools — whether more teachers will be reassigned, when that will happen and what class sizes will actually look like — as well as the inherent challenges of remote learning in itself, Canning said. 

"We want to do what's best for [our daughter] ... but there's no right way to do this right now." 

WATCH | Ontario schools struggle to accommodate surge in requests for virtual learning:

Ontario schools see increased demand for virtual learning

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Featured VideoMany Ontario schools are struggling to accommodate the surge in requests for virtual learning.


Jessica Wong

Senior digital writer

Based in Toronto, Jessica Wong covers Canadian education stories for CBC News. She previously covered arts and entertainment news, both national and international, and has been a digital journalist for CBC since 2001. You can reach her at

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt