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Shawn Sabourin, principal at Dolson Public School in Brampton, Ont., on Nov. 24, 2020. Dolson is a school hollowed by COVID-19.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Primary students climb onto chairs and press their drawings against the classroom window at Dolson Public School, in Brampton, Ont., as a visitor walks the grounds on a recent Wednesday, guided by the principal.

The classroom next door is empty. So, too, are the 12 portables in the yard. Only three of the eight kindergarten rooms are used. Eighteen classes are being held in person – but another 30 are online and offsite

“It feels,” principal Shawn Sabourin said, “almost like a ghost town.”

Dolson is a school hollowed by COVID-19. No other region in the country has seen more children go online than Brampton, where a rising number of cases has made it a Canadian hotspot for the pandemic and pushed many in a predominantly South Asian community to pull their children out of the bricks-and-mortar classroom.

Two-thirds of elementary-school children in Brampton are attending virtual school, compared with fewer than half in nearby Mississauga and Toronto. The reasons why families have chosen to keep their children home are as varied as anywhere in the country: anxiety about becoming infected with COVID-19; rising infection rates; and nervousness about bringing the virus home to elderly relatives in multigenerational households. But the choice that Ontario gave families this fall has come under scrutiny: Early research findings on virtual learning from York University showed a significant digital divide among families, teachers struggling with fewer resources and insufficient support for students, especially those with special needs.

Standing in the lobby of his school, Mr. Sabourin reminisced of his once bustling building of 1,100 students. Most mornings, he’d take on the part-time role of a traffic duty officer as hundreds of cars lined up to drop off children.

Today, there are just 302 children in the school building.

The high test positivity rate in Brampton has made families nervous. About 11 per cent of tests in the northwest part of the city where Dolson is located came back positive in the week of Nov. 15, according to ICES, a non-profit Ontario research organization formerly known as the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. The positivity rate for the province as a whole was about 4 per cent.

An ICES analysis of tests by postal code found that three of the top four areas in Ontario with high positivity were in Brampton. One east of Dolson had a positivity rate of 18 per cent.

“We can all wear our masks, we can all sanitize, we can all do all of the precautionary measures that we need to, but the reality is that it’s spreading,” Mr. Sabourin said. “So there is a risk.” So far Dolson has had one confirmed case since school started, and a class self-isolated at home.

It is not just parents who are concerned, but educators as well. Mumtaz Najeeb, a teacher at Dolson, has taught for more than three decades. She chose to instruct online this year because she has severe asthma and her husband is a cancer survivor who also has breathing difficulties.

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Mumtaz Najeeb, a grade 3 teacher at Dolson, seen here outside her home in Brampton on Nov. 24, chose to instruct online this year because she has severe asthma and her husband is a cancer survivor with breathing difficulties.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Her desk is in her guest bedroom, now a makeshift classroom. On a recent morning last month, 23 young faces appeared on the screen, one by one, from their living rooms, basements and bedrooms. They greeted their teacher with an enthusiastic “Good morning, Ms. Najeeb.”

As class went on she had to periodically remind her Grade 3 students to mute their microphones and raise their hands to answer questions. At her suggestion, they stood up and stretched between lessons, a way to draw their eyes away from the screen for a few minutes. When Ms. Najeeb couldn’t load a book, a few of the tech-savvy pupils piped in with tips. “We did it guys,” she said after a few minutes of trying. “Pat yourselves on the back.”

Ms. Najeeb finds she misses the familiarity of a classroom, especially as she and her colleagues struggle to find resources to make their lessons more engaging.

“You need to have a lot of patience to learn, not only the technical skills, but also to learn how to be creative, to make your students engaged in the classroom. That was the difficult part for me.”

Teachers working virtually also face challenges beyond their control. Prachi Srivastava, an associate professor of education and global development at the University of Western Ontario, is concerned about the appropriateness of an online education for young learners and certain groups of students. At the Toronto District School Board, for example, an analysis showed that students from lower socioeconomic families and those with parents with lower education levels chose virtual school. (Dolson’s neighbourhood has a highly racialized community with a mid- to high-income level, according to the 2016 census.)

“This isn’t about the teachers. This is about the system that is compelling instructors and teachers to do the best they can with time limitations, a curriculum that hasn’t been reframed, technology supports that haven’t been in put in place, connectivity issues for certain households over others,” Prof. Srivastava said.

“All of that translates into a decrease in education quality.”

As good as a virtual classroom might be, nothing can replace a teacher on the carpet reading a story with his or her group of students, Mr. Sabourin said, or the face-to-face interaction during a math lesson. “That is what education is all about.”

Regardless, for many parents keeping their kids and family healthy is the No. 1 priority.

Prathiba Karthikeyan speaks plainly about why she chose to have her son, Nikhil, study at home this year. “Parents want to keep their kids safe. Everybody is really worried about what’s going to happen because it [the numbers in Brampton] keeps changing,” she said.

Nikhil, 8, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, and Ms. Karthikeyan was worried about his ability to wear a mask properly. Her older son attended high school for the first two months, but she and her husband have since chosen to keep him home.

It can be overwhelming to have her children around while she and her husband are working, Ms. Karthikeyan acknowledges. Nikhil, for example, will come to find her in the house when he’s having issues on his computer. But she remains confident in her decision.

Karla Davis, co-chair of Dolson’s parent council, said many parents have told her it makes sense to keep their kids home since they are working remotely. Others have grandparents and relatives who can help manage children.

Ms. Davis sent her children back to school because she and her husband don’t have the option to work from home on a regular basis. Her eldest, in Grade 2, recently came out of self-isolation after a positive COVID-19 case in her classroom.

“As a parent, do I feel comfortable? We had no choice, but we knew our children were going to be safe at Dolson,” she said.

Not so for Amandeep Kaur, another Dolson parent whose eight-year-old daughter attends Ms. Najeeb’s class. She said that any runny nose or cough would worry her as she explained her decision to keep Mehar home. Further, her parents have been visiting from India and she did not want to risk infecting them.

It gives her some comfort to know remote learning likely will not last beyond this school year. “School is where they should be. That’s where they belong.”

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