GUELPH – Between an email interview with the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) on Dec. 18 and a phone interview with the Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) on Dec. 22, Premier Doug Ford announced an Ontario-wide lockdown and a change to return-to-school plans for boards across the province.
And that demonstrates perfectly how educators, students and families have had to change direction in a moment’s notice ever since the pandemic unfolded in March.
“It’s been quite a year so far,” said Mike Glazier, director of education with WCDSB. “It’s been a lot to go through. And now we have new dates.”
By provincial order, all elementary students will return after the break to remote learning from Jan. 4 to 8 and can return to in-person learning on Jan. 11.
All secondary school students will return to remote learning from Jan. 4 to 22 and return to in-person learning on Jan. 25.
With that announcement, Glazier and his leadership team will be spending the break figuring out how to do that, he said.
“In January there will be a change to in-person learning. We’ll prepare staff as much as possible,” he said.
The school year started with a lot of trepidation. Students and staff in brick-and-mortar schools spent a lot of time learning about new protocols, including basics like how to enter the building, when and how to take masks off, and how to interact socially.
“Students and staff have done an incredible job,” Glazier said. “As a result, transmission (of COVID-19) has been very low.”
Getting the virtual school up and running has also been a challenge. The board had offered e-learning in pre-COVID times, but operating a virtual school was a different animal.
“It’s been quite an adjustment for staff and students – a lot of technology to understand in order to be effective. But they’ve done very well. It feels like a classroom now,” Glazier said.
“I read stories with one class the other day – virtually, of course. And there is the ability to have guest speakers drop in with classrooms as opposed to having a school-wide assembly.
“They’re doing quite well now that they’ve gotten into a routine.”
Heather Loney, communications officer with UGDSB, said in an email that her board had a similar experience.
“Even our youngest learners have done an excellent job learning the new protocols, including requirements around wearing masks, hand sanitizing and physical distancing,” Loney wrote.
“There continue to be shifts and changes as the COVID-19 situation continues and of course reminders are sometimes required, but we have been incredibly heartened to see how everyone has responded to the new normal.”
Loney said even with uncertainty in September about how safe returning to school would be, “there have not been any disciplinary actions for people not following the COVID-19 protocols.”
Loney said board officials haven’t compared the data yet, but anecdotally, “we have not seen a difference in grades or achievement between remote learning and in-person learning or from last year to this year.
“Teachers continue to deliver the curriculum to students, whether the student is attending in-person or remotely. Upper Grand students continue to achieve and receive individualized support where needed.”
Loney said teachers have also noticed an improvement in student behaviour, which is unexpected.
“We have noticed that behaviour issues have decreased, attendance seems to have improved and students on average have been successful in their classes during the first part of the school year,” Loney said.
WCDSB has seen the same change.
“A large percentage of our face-to-face learners are there because they really want to be there,” Glazier said.
“Schools are a happy place. There’s new learning every day.”
Glazier said as well as academics and mental wellness initiatives for staff and students, the board is focusing on its equity and inclusion action plan.
He said 700 people participated in a virtual “thought exchange” session as the board develops and implements its three-year action plan.
“We’ve had some professional development on that, looking at unconscious bias,” he said.
Advancing its equity plan has also been a high point at UGDSB.
“The board has also made progress in important and necessary work in anti-racism and anti-oppression,” Loney said.
“Progress updates made in the board’s multi-year Equity Plan were shared this month and can be viewed at www.ugdsb.ca/equity.”
Both boards praised students for holding online fundraisers and supporting good causes throughout the pandemic.
“Even though the way we do things has had to change this year, staff, students and schools continue to give back to the community, holding fundraisers in new online formats to continue supporting those in need in local communities, sending letters and cards of thanks to frontline workers, and more,” Loney said.
“There are great stories of the Catholic community outreach to those in need,” Glazier agreed.
“In a year with so much change and traditions looking different, the students and community have rallied.”
Both boards advise parents to check their school’s website for the most up-to-date information on the return-to-school plan and any other changes that may arise.