School boards prepare for distance learning

WELLINGTON COUNTY – School teachers will begin phoning their students this week in preparation for school resuming April 6, but it will be a very different classroom and a very different way of learning as schools remain closed and physical distancing is the new normal.

Heather Loney, spokesperson with the Upper Grand District School Board, said staff teams have been working on distance education programs for every grade level in order to have programming for students when school resumes.

Premier Doug Ford announced an extended March Break for all students in the province just before the break began and suggested last week that schools would not be able to physically open on April 6.

On March 31, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced schools are unlikely to open before May.

But there will be e-learning and opportunities to interact with teachers, even if not in person.

“We have online resources, but this distance learning is a big challenge,” Loney said in a phone interview March 30. “We’re working through it. The plan will evolve. The focus right now is getting it off the ground.”

Part of what teachers will be doing when they call their students, is get a sense of their technology needs and physical working space, Loney said.

Not all students – and not all teachers – have computers or even internet at their disposal, Loney said. That’s one challenge they hope to overcome.

Some students will have parents working from home and siblings who also have schoolwork to do, so it could become difficult in some households with a limited number of devices.

“This is the kind of information the teachers will collect as they reach out to students,” Loney said. “Once we know how extensive the problem, we can then find solutions.”

There are some 35,000 students in the Upper Grand board and about 4,550 teachers, including 1,600 elementary teachers, 850 secondary teachers, 900 occasional teachers and 2,000 support staff.

In a letter to parents dated March 23, Director of Education Martha Rogers acknowledged how difficult it may be for students, parents and teachers to get used to the new way of doing things.

“Please note that we cannot replicate our traditional school experience, however we will do whatever we can to provide supports and resources to our students and staff, and carefully consider issues of equity and accessibility,” Rogers wrote.

Loney said she hopes parents and students will be patient as they work through the details and the glitches that are sure to arise.

“The Minister of Education has said that no graduating student will be adversely impacted by COVID-19. But what the remainder of this year will look like, I don’t know right now,” Loney said.

She doesn’t know if there will be sports, or trips, or concerts, or high school proms before the year is done, but students will get their year if they put in the work, she said.

Board meetings have been cancelled to-date but Loney said she expects they will resume electronically – possibly live-streaming – “and that will be sufficient to get the work done. The board chair will set the meeting dates, likely in a couple of weeks.”

On March 20 the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario reached a tentative agreement with the province, and the union has suspended all job action until the contract is ratified by its members. There has been no word on when that is likely to happen.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation has not been to the bargaining table since December 2019, but has suspended job sanctions until the COVID-19 crisis eases.