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Basketball nets have been removed at the closed Tomken Road Middle School, in Mississauga, Ont., on March 31, 2020.

The Canadian Press

For two hours every day, Martine Gagnon’s fifth-grade class learns about geometry, the French language and social sciences from a well-appointed nook in her Ottawa-area kitchen.

She has two whiteboards, a laptop, another computer screen and a camera.

“So far, my students are with me every day and they’re happy to see me – I see their smiles,” said Ms. Gagnon, a teacher in Barrhaven, Ont. “They share things that they do at home. We exchange so much.”

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In the two months since most Canadian schools have shut their doors during the COVID-19 lockdown, a sometimes animated debate has emerged over how teachers can and should connect with their students. Some have connected in real time, while others have preferred to upload assignments for students to complete.

What is the reopening plan in my province? A guide

The issue was pushed to the forefront in recent days when Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he’d heard from “countless parents” that their children were missing out on the face-to-face interactions with their classmates and teachers. The province, he said, expected school boards to implement real-time learning.

“We firmly believe students deserve to be together virtually in a synchronous classroom led by their teacher,” Mr. Lecce said in a statement.

Teacher unions, however, warned that real-time sessions are vulnerable to security threats, and do not allow for flexibility among families who lack consistent access to online resources.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce speaks during a news conference at the Ontario Legislature, at Queen's Park, in Toronto, on May 19, 2020.

Jack Boland/The Canadian Press

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, wrote in a letter to the Education Minister last Wednesday that the direction “not only ignores the incredible effort educators are making to meet the learning needs of students during these unprecedented times, but also shows complete disregard for the professional judgement of our members.”

Unlike Ontario, other provinces have not prescribed how teachers should deliver content, saying educators are welcome to conduct synchronous learning with their students. That has led to wide variations in how school boards, schools and individual classroom teachers deliver distance learning.

The English Montreal School Board said that every high-school student is called at least once a week, while many elementary-school teachers are arranging Zoom or other team video activities with their students. (Elementary schools and daycares outside of Montreal opened this week. After twice delaying reopening, the government said last Thursday that it would not open schools until September in the Montreal area, where infection rates remain high.)

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“It was simply a wish on the part of the administration to maintain contact, keep in touch,” spokesman Michael Cohen said. “Let’s touch base, let’s see how they’re doing. This is emotionally draining on everybody in society, including students. It’s helpful for them to have an ear.”

Teachers faced a steep learning curve as they scrambled to adopt online learning. Jane Bailey, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said that while synchronous lessons may be able to develop a greater sense of connection with students away from the classroom, educators are struggling to adapt in an environment that highlights a number of issues, including privacy and security.

She and colleagues recently published a piece in the Conversation Canada, a website that presents views from the research and academic community, that looked at privacy and equality issues related to online education during the pandemic. The article sounded an alarm on the long-term repercussions of surveillance and security risks associated with the use of these platforms. Policy makers need to step in to ensure that terms of use protect students’ privacy and equality rights, she said.

“We can’t just leave it to individual teachers or individual schools or even maybe individual school boards to run around and figure it out. That’s a lot to ask. What’s being gambled is our kids’ data,” said Prof. Bailey, who also co-leads the eQuality Project, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and looks to increase understanding of online media’s impact on privacy, equality and cyberbullying.

While AJ Keene, a superintendent of education at Lakehead Public Schools in Thunder Bay, understands the pressures on educators to adapt quickly to distance learning, he and his staff are hearing that students want those real-time connections. His board has asked teachers to do check-ins on pupils, whether through video, phone calls or responding to e-mails.

“It is very difficult to require [synchronous teaching] of teachers, because of the level of learning that’s required,” Mr. Keene. But the worry is that as the time away from the classroom stretches from weeks into months, more students will disengage from learning especially if they don’t connect with teachers and classmates, he added.

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Ms. Gagnon, who teaches at the French-language Michaëlle-Jean Public School, said she felt a responsibility to give her students some structure when schools closed in March. She uses a platform that has been approved by her school board. Of her 24 students, almost all attend her two-hour daily session.

“I hope my lessons provide some type of organizational skills for some families to be able to say ‘Your class is starting in 10 minutes. Are you ready?’” said Ms. Gagnon, who also has two young children.

Parent David Williams, whose daughter is in Ms. Gagnon’s class, said he appreciated the lessons because it gives the family a sense of routine each day, not to mention how much his daughter enjoys interacting with her teacher and classmates. Every weekday morning his daughter sits at the dining-room table with a laptop ready for her class to begin.

His younger son, in Grade 3, will often sit beside her and listen. His teacher, too, does real-time lessons.

“It anchors our day,” Mr. Williams said. “I think the kids are just hungry for some kind of regular routine as far as school goes and that’s what this is giving both of my kids.”

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

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Ontario will not be reopening schools this spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Premier Doug Ford says the safety of children is his top priority and online learning will continue. Education Minister Stephen Lecce says he will announce a plan before the end of June for reopening schools in September. The Canadian Press
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